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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hot Spell

For weeks on end it had been hotter than Billy be damned. Heat lie on the parched, arid land like a wool blanket that could not be kicked off. Before noon each day, the sky turned a flat white, the sun becoming an unblinking eye of fire. There were no clouds, not a breath of breeze, just the steady, unbroken, oppressive heat.

Once the heat settled in for the day, the little town of Gleneden seemed deserted. There was no commerce being conducted, none of the usual midday sounds from the saloon, no riders coming into town because the trails were thick with alkali dust that would choke a horse and make a man mighty uncomfortable.

Yet late one afternoon, Ned Rogers did ride into town. He had been on the trail from Cottonwood for two weeks, traveling only early and late in the day. Most of the creeks were near dry, what grass there was had turned grey and bitter. He had been aiming his horse, a pale dun that was about played out, toward a hazy range, the summit and upper slopes of which appeared to be covered with timber. He thought it may be cooler there.

The horse’s nose had been covered with a burlap sack in a futile attempt to keep the dust out. He knew it wasn’t working because the bandana that stretched across the lower part of his face was thick with the fine, white powder.

His canteen was empty when he rode into Gleneden, a town he didn’t know even existed. Didn’t look like much, even for a new town. Just a block long, the saloon, general store and a livery stable being the primary place of business, all having the appearance of being hastily constructed. A few thrown together small dwellings that looked more like shacks completed the setting. Wasn’t much to the place and it seemed there never would be.

Leading his horse into the stable, he found the attendant fitfully sleeping off a drunk. After removing the saddle, he let the horse drink its fill then wiped it down with a wet towel, being careful to wipe the dust from the animal’s eyes and nose.

He stripped off his soiled shirt, ducking his head into the trough in an attempt to wash off as much grit as possible. His saddlebags contained a passably clean shirt. He beat the dust out of his hat and before leaving the stable cleaned and oiled his Winchester and the Colt he wore on his hip.

Stepping out into the blast of heat was like walking into an unseen punch. Above the saloon was a sign advertising rooms. He rightly figured that occupying one of them would be like visiting one of hell’s ovens. He planned on bedding down with his horse in the stable.

After entering the saloon, he paused for a moment letting his eyes adjust to the dimness within- empty, save for a pale, plump barkeep with shiny beads of perspiration peppering his receding hairline.

The beer was not as cold as he would have preferred but it served to cut the dust so he ordered another and asked for a taste of whiskey to go along with it.

“Come far?” The bartender questioned

“A piece.” Rogers responded.

You’re the first stranger I’ve seen in a long spell,” reported the barkeep, hungry for conversation.

“Not many willing to ride in this heat,” said Rogers. “Hard on a horse and a man.”

A few moments later, the sound of hoofs could be heard in the street. Just after that, a short powerfully built man with a scarred face busted through the swinging doors. He wore a sour look and a pair of pearl handled cross- draw revolvers. Right away, Rogers pegged him as a bad actor.

“I’ll be going to hell if some drifter is gonna sass me.” Shorty said as his right hand made a stab for the gun he wore on his left side.

Shorty Logan was not fond of the heat, made things too quiet. Besides, whiskey didn’t taste as good when things were this warm. Shorty was a troublemaker who fancied himself a fair hand with a gun. Maybe that was why he was in a one horse town like Gleneden, because he was nothing more than a fair hand with a gun.

There was no law in Gleneden, was never a need before Shorty rode into the new town early that spring. Since then, he had made quite a name for himself. He gunned down two strangers who were just passing through, an employee of the mercantile who was a little too surly for his liking and a sodbuster who had driven a wagon into town one Sunday morning with his wife and infant daughter- whose crying annoyed Shorty as he was nursing a hangover.

“Whiskey!” Shorty bellowed.

Ned Rogers could see the barkeep was intimidated by the presence of the man. His hand shook visibly as he poured the drink.

When his drink arrived, Shorty turned his cold stare to the stranger in the saloon.

“Driftin’ through?” sounded more like an order than a question.

“Depends who’s askin’ and who wants to know.” Rogers countered.

Ned Rogers wasn’t hunting trouble but as sometimes happens in a man’s life; trouble had come looking for him. He wasn’t the kind to run from it.

Shorty sized the stranger up. Rogers was tall, handsome and some years younger than himself. All were reasons to loathe him. He decided to kill the stranger.

He continued to stare at Rogers who, for his part, sipped his whiskey all the while keeping his eyes on Shorty. The stillness in the room increased, broken by the back peddling steps of the frightened barkeep and the sudden buzzing of a fly.

“I’ll be going to hell if some drifter is gonna sass me.” Shorty said as his right hand made a stab for the gun he wore on his left side.

As soon as he made his play, Shorty Logan knew he had dealt a bad hand. The last thing he saw was a blur, and then the stranger’s Colt was level and steady in his hand. Soon after, there was a hole in the middle of Shorty’s forehead.

billbaberBill Baber’s crime fiction has appeared at; Flash Fiction Offensive, Powder Burn Flash, Darkest Before the Dawn, Shotgun Honey & Near to the Knuckle. other places his writing has appeared include, Slow Trains, Literary Harvest and The High Desert Journal. A book of his poetry, Where the Wind Comes to Play was published by Berberis Press in 2011. A native of San Francisco, he lives with his wife and a spoiled dog in Tucson, Az.

Artwork is modified from the movie The Gunfighter.

Shorty Logan was the first man Ned Rogers had killed. Right away, he realized he had no taste for it. But in the west, a man did what he had to do to survive. He knew that if he had to, he would do it again. He hoped he would just be left alone.

As the sound of the shot stopped echoing through the again silent town, another man came through the saloon doors. A slight, well kept man in shopkeeper’s clothes, he glanced at the body of the outlaw whose blood was staining the sawdust floor. A silent smile crossed his face.

“Mister, “he addressed Rogers, “I’m Walt Conner, mayor of this soon to be thriving metropolis. You have done us quite a favor. How would you like a job as town marshal?”

“Thanks but no thanks.” Rogers replied. “I’m just passin’ through.”

“Well then,” offered the mayor, “The least I can do is buy you a drink.”

The obviously relieved bartender, whose hand was suddenly much steadier, filled three glasses.

After a few more drinks and the biggest steak he’d had in quite some time, Ned bedded down in the livery stable, waking once during the night to the sound of a gentle rain and the feel of a cool breeze on his face.

He rode out of Gleneden the next morning at sunup. The mountains he rode toward stood in stark contrast against a brilliant blue sky, his trail free of dust, a new found spring in his horses step.

The hot spell was over.