by Christopher W Gamsby
We start our story with two lifelong friends standing 50 yards apart in an old western town. A white paneled church with a large wooden cross on the steeple framed the north side of the town square. A red paneled saloon with a heavy gray oak door sat on the eastern flank. Makeshift crosses buried in the desert's sand dotted the town's cemetery on the square's southern edge. Finally the sheriff's office sat on the square's western side.
James worked as a ranch hand on local prairies. He spent days riding freely among the wilds and spent his nights drinking in the saloon. Today he came into town from herding cattle. He wore a black shirt and pants to keep his cloths at least looking clean. James' hot blood and temper often got the better of him, which meant spending time with the sheriff. Alcohol made it worse and that's how he ended up facing his life-long friend, well, alcohol and a woman.
William was the antithesis of James. He was bookish and worked as a scribe, notary, accountant, lawyer, or really whatever the locals needed. William's cold calculating nature acted as a counter balance to James' brash antics. William's tongue kept James out of prison or out of fights at the bar and James kept rustlers and bandits from extorting William. Sometimes people attacked William because his meek nature made him seem like an easy target. He wore his Sunday whites while working in the church, to show respect. On his way home from taking dictation at the church he found James in a violent drunken rage in the town square.
Their friendship ended 4 years ago when Lily moved to town and started working in the saloon. She was a beauty like the townsfolk had never seen. Even though the town was little more than a trading post, she saw it as a sprawling metropolis compared to the farmland where she was raised. She instantly drew William and James' attention. The friends stopped talking after realizing they were romantic rivals. She dated each of them in turn and loved them both in their own ways and so she couldn't watch the fight in the street.
James first invited Lily to an afternoon ride through the local country side. Lily clung to him as they sprinted the mare down hillside passes and through open fields of sunflowers and perennials. The date ended with James and Lily making love under an old oak tree as the sun set. Their romance picked up from there. Every night they partied at the saloon until the early hours of the morning. They worked through the day fighting hangovers and partied again each night. As their love increased, James' jealousy increased.
He became more violent each day and alcohol fueled his rage. The beatings began when he thought Lily flirted with other patrons. Every morning James apologized and swore the last time was the last time. Lily stayed because she thought the intensity of her feelings were inescapable and leaving James would hurt more than staying. Months later the relationship came to a head when James beat Lily so severely that she risked dying before waking. If someone didn't intervene, it was only a matter of time before Lily was going to die by James' hand. William watched everything from afar and he worried for her the whole time. The sheriff stepped in and jailed James and William stepped in and courted Lily.
Her life with William became mundane, trivial even, and lacked much spice. At first she needed the chance to live without fear of pain or embarrassment. She'd wake in the morning to William cooking breakfast instead of vomiting on the floor. William worked in town and he'd stop by the saloon for lunch or she could see him during the day when her work slowed. Once a week they'd dance at the church's barn dance and retire home at a reasonable hour. Each day felt the same as the weeks turned to months and the months turned into a year.
Lily felt content but missed the violent drunken sex that marked her relationship with James. She missed the midnight brawls, morning laughter, daytime fights and sunset rides. William was kind to her when she needed it most and she'll never forget but she craved more.
She started sneaking out at night. After William fell asleep she'd quietly get out of bed, creep out of their small apartment and head to the saloon. Sometimes she'd come back smelling of booze and sometimes she'd come back smelling of another man's BO but she always came back and so William never complained. On the eve of James's release from jail a few weeks ago William asked Lily to marry him. He waited for an answer but she left that night and never returned.
James slid straight into a bottle after being released from prison two weeks ago. He stewed and fumed everyday but now he was determined to see Lily to make sure she came back. William intercepted him in the town square intent on stopping him. The move surprised James because he knew his friend would never fight unless he thought he could win, but there was no way William could beat James in a fair fight.
The sheriff insisted the two talk out their differences before he would officiate their duel. He sat on a chain swing on his office's front porch for ten minutes but the combatants only stared each other down in the street. The time only served to give the town folk a chance to gather along the road side. The sheriff rose and stepped into the street. Gunfights were uncommon in the region, but not illegal if the two parties consented in squaring down to settle their dispute. The sheriff respected William for his good works in town and didn't want to see any harm come to him, but he had no love for James who only caused pain in his wake. The sheriff unclasped the aluminum star from the lapel on his chest.
A sheriff only removed his badge and threw it to the ground for two reasons. First it meant that law and order was suspended in town and secondly it signaled that the duelists could fire. The sheriff eyed James and William and threw the tin into the air. James caressed the handle of his gun while the badge floated toward the earth. William swallowed and wiped the sweat from his brow. The badge drifted closer to the ground and the crowd held their breath.
The star clinked as it struck the ground and James drew his pistol first and fired. Guns from this time were wildly inaccurate and the rushed shot missed William completely. James fanned his revolver's hammer and continued his barrage. The booze and anger made all his shots fly wildly. William calmly drew his revolver, aimed for James and pulled the trigger but missed his mark by inches. James slowly strafed right as he fanned the hammer more quickly. His pistol emptied and he dropped it to the dirt. Meanwhile William fired a second shot and then a third.
The last shot grazed James' left arm and he cringed, but the alcohol dulled his pain. James drew his second pistol and fanned shots toward William. This time 3 quick shots struck his chest in rapid succession. William dropped his pistol. The smooth white of his lapel stained red and the blotch spread through his entire upper body. William fell to the ground and the sheriff rushed to his side to confirm what every spectator knew. James picked up and holstered his dropped gun.
James moseyed to the saloon to claim his prize, one way or the other. He tightened his grip on the pistol's handle as he turned the door knob. The door creaked open and before he could raise his pistol or say a word, two shotgun blasts rung out and burst through his chest. The sheriff jumped and reached for his own pistol but he balked. His badge of office still laid in the dirt and he was wracked by indecision. Lily ran out of the saloon and dropped the double barrel shotgun next to James' body. William smiled, coughed up blood with a little laugh and raised his hand toward the sky.
Lily met William with tears streaking down her face. She took his hand and placed his head in her lap. She choked out the only word she could muster.
William felt a warmth pass through his cold hands and it lit a fire to his core. His head raised from the dirt and the warmth spread. The sky was bright. The sun shown down and was eclipsed by Lily's face. The sky darkened as a flush on his forehead intensified. A salty warm rain fell onto his cheeks. For the first time in two years William knew the same passion that Lily had only held for James. He felt peace as the last of his life left.
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