short story

THE DAY I MET JACKSON CANTRELL

A Short Story
by —

 A J Hindle

 

It was early afternoon in the small town of Johnson County: population 279. The main street could have been a Hollywood set — a time capsule of Wyoming’s Wild West of the late1800s. The only suggestion we were in 1963 was the paved highway that passed through town. Old, weathered buildings lined the short main street: a bank, general store, a hotel and saloon with a hitching rail to tie up your horse, and several other structures of old-west small-town life, made you feel you had ventured back in time.

My buddy Rick and I were on our way home — the end of an epic road trip to Florida that had provided us with a lifetime of memories. We were halfway through Wyoming on our way north to Alberta. But fate still held a remaining adventure in store for us.

My old Volkswagen Beetle had served us well but began suffering mechanical problems., and its demise was rapid. We barely made it, the engine knocking and smoking as we limped into the only gas station available in the small town— an old converted livery stable now attempting to service the automotive industry. I turned off the ignition to talk to the attendant. When I tried to start it, I had no luck.

Repairs to the engine would be far beyond what we could afford. We were not about to abandon our vehicle: we were stranded. My only choice was an embarrassing long-distance phone call home to my dad, as a desperate teenager might do. Reluctantly, he agreed to come to our aid and drive the one thousand miles to Wyoming to deliver us and my car, connected to a towbar,  home. I knew that I would be in his debt forever. His arrival would not be until the following evening, so Rick and I  got a hotel room above the saloon for the night.

We spent the next morning investigating the locale — chatting with the residents, listening to their folklore that at times stretched the imagination — stories of cowboys, desperados, wild-west gunfights, and lawmen of legend, who had lived in, passed through, and died violently in shootouts, many on the streets where we stood.

By noon we were exhausted. My dad would not arrive until early evening, and I was sure he would want to stay the night, so we booked the room for another night. Rick decided to take an afternoon nap. I wandered into the saloon, ordered a Coke and sat contemplating my discomfiting situation, as well as our morning’s history lesson.

An old cowboy shuffled through the saloon doors, a hat draped over his head, possibly the same vintage as himself. A long, oilskin coat hung open from his shoulders, draping behind him like a cape and revealing a holstered six-gun, that was strapped to his leg. As he entered the saloon, the batwing doors slid off his body and fluttered shut behind him. He appeared tired and worn —  his eyes focused on the floor just beyond his step. Passing in front of the bar, he motioned the bartender with a flick of his finger, I presumed ordering his usual drink, and continued in my direction. As the old cowboy approached, catching sight of me, he hesitated for a moment before choosing the table to my right and settling himself into the chair. Perhaps I was in his usual spot. By the time he had made himself comfortable, the bartender had placed a beer on his table and was headed back to the bar. As he passed my table, he gave me a wink. I wasn’t sure what it meant: perhaps a suggestion of something to come.

The old cowboy removed his hat and stroked back his long white hair. A partially missing ear and a scar on his cheek begged a story of what had happened. Re-donning his headgear, he reached for his glass, took a swallow, then sighed as if that was all the work he could muster for the moment. His eyes, narrowed as if trying to hide his thoughts, drifted to me, and he nodded a silent, ‘Hello.’

Beneath a bristly stubble of beard, his face was tanned and weathered from years of exposure to nature’s elements. I returned his greeting in kind, then we sat there silent, each staring at the drink on our table. When he leaned forward putting his glass on the table, the long coat slid back from his hip, once again revealing the revolver snuggled to his side.

My Gawd! A western gunslinger? I thought. A cowboy. Was there a movie production happening in town? Was he an actor taking a break, waiting for a call to his scene?

Aware of my staring at the weapon on his hip, he spoke.

“Never seen a revolver before, son?”

His voice was measured —slow and quiet, with a John Wayne drawn-out sort of speak. I was immediately mesmerized. In awe, I finally stumbling out a reply.

“Well, I-I must admit, I’ve n–never met a gunslinger. I mean someone wearing a s-six-gun on their hip. Are you a movie actor? Is it a real gun?”

My Gawd! ‘Never met a gunslinger! Is it a real gun? ‘Maybe I should just ask for his autograph and leave before I thoroughly embarrass myself?

He formed a half-smile. “It’s real alright,” he said.
I was sure he recognized my embarrassment. He paused for a moment, then continued.

“Been with me a long time. Don’t get much use out of it anymore—’cept maybe to shoot the odd coyote.”

He turned his view toward me, then introduced himself.

“Names . . . , Jackson Cantrell.”

The name rolled off his tongue like a drum crescendo.

“Skylar Loggins,” I managed to blurt out.

Then he did the most unexpected thing. He unholstered the weapon and placed it on my table for inspection. I stared at it lying next to my coke, then gingerly picked it up.

“Careful there, son,” he said. “She’s loaded.”

Holy shit! Like, he had to warn me!

 It was a cold and cumbersome piece of hardware. The metal, tarnished from years of exposure, was otherwise pristine. The wooden grip was a dark chocolate colour, smooth and shiny from the sweat and oils of years of handling. I stared at the bullets in the cylinder. Yes, it was ready to shoot. It was hard to believe, such a heavy, awkward weapon could be quickly drawn from a holster and accurately shot. All I had ever seen of these revolvers was in movies and television. It was daunting seeing one strapped to the side of someone sitting next to me. Now I was holding it in my hands.

“It looks old,” I said.

“It is, son. ‘Bout seventy-five  years or more, I reckon.”
The words chewed out of his mouth.
“Startin’ to show its years, though—kinda like me.” He gave a slight smile, then took the final swallow of his beer and placed the drained glass back on the table.

When I handed it back, I noticed four distinct notches carved into one side of the wooden handgrip. Notches! My Gawd! What did they represent? A scorecard of killings? Human lives that ended by this weapon? Why was he wearing it now? Questions I was almost afraid to ask. I thought about the age he said it was and the stories I’d heard from town folk earlier today. It was a weapon from the late 1800s, the time of the outlaws like the Wild Bunch.

“Seventy-five years!” I said. “That goes back a long way. How’d you come by it?”

‘How’d you come by it? I was doing it again! He’s must think I’m a moron trying to mimic him.’

That slight smile curved a corner of his mouth again and then faded. He reached for his glass, then remembering it was empty, rested back in his chair. That movement was like a cue to me; I looked toward the bar, signaling the bartender to bring another round. Then we sat—silent—waiting. Perhaps I had been to nosy. Or, maybe he was thinking of some memory that he could share with the naïve kid he had for an audience?

The bartender delivered our drinks. He placed a beer in front of Cantrell and the other, along with my coke, on my table. That seemed unusual; I was sure I was underage for drinking in Wyoming. Perhaps it wasn’t a concern here in the Wild West Wyoming country. I wasn’t about to argue; I Paid for the drinks and took a sip before he changed his mind and took it back. As I put my glass back on the table, I noticed the old man glancing again in my direction. He motioned his glass toward me, a silent salute of ‘Thanks.’  He took a swallow, then settled back in his chair.

The gunslinger began a conversation.

“You a stranger to Wyoming, son?”

I told him about Rick’s and my journey on our way back to Alberta, about the car breaking down and our waiting for a ride. He politely listened—I’d bought him a beer.

“Alberta,” he said. “Good cattle country. A bit like Wyoming, if my memory serves me.”

I told him what little I knew of Wyoming, I had learned today from townsfolk stories.

“Mostly romanticized history of wild-west lawlessness. Outlaws and desperado gangs from the past, like ‘The Wild Bunch,” I said.

His cheek twitched a smile, and he gave a slight snicker. “There was lawlessness alright,” he said. “Though it didn’t seem all that romantic at the time. It was just the life.”
He hesitated, then added, “For some, a short one.”

He stared down at his drink, retreating possibly into thoughts of his past. Finally, after another swallow of beer, he rested back and started to tell me a tale.

“It was tough in Wyoming back then,” he began. “For many folks—probably most I’d say—life was a damn hard struggle. Wyoming was changing. The railroad had come in, good news for the cattle markets. But it also brought in settlers, small-time ranchers and farmers, many with government-endowed settler’s deeds. They fenced their land, cutting up the open rangelands, blocking off large sections of grassland from the larger herds the wealthy cattle barons owned and that caused detours for the large cattle drives.”

As he told his story, he spoke slowly, pausing to think about what he was about to say. He was a master of the tale, and I was his captive. He continued.

“Hostility grew. These new, small-time farmers were a problem, a thorn in the cattlemen’s operations — destroyers of the open land for herd grazing and cattle drives.  The owners of the massive herds saw them as an expense of both trouble and money. They accused the settlers of cattle rustling and range busting, but the courts supported the government entitled farmers. In desperation, they turned to a more aggressive approach to ridding themselves of this problem; threatening the small landowners, burning them out, even killing.”
He paused and took a drink of his beer.

“Were you around here, then?” I asked. He was a grand old gentleman, but I didn’t know his age.

“I was. I was just a boy. My folks had a homestead, actually not too far of here, in Platte County. Dirt poor, they were—30 or 40 head of cattle, but they had one of those government settler’s deeds. It was their start at a new life. I was too young to have much opinion on it back then.”

He put his glass back on the table.

“One day in the spring of ’91, my Momma, Pa and older brother were workin’ in the yard when a posse for the cattlemen’s association rode in. I was in the house doin’ chores for Momma. It wasn’t long before I could hear them all shoutin’ back and forth; my folks were being threatened. They were tellin’ Pa that he had no rights to the land, that the government deed was invalid. Then, they began accusing him of cattle rustling. I was pretty young, but I knew that wasn’t true. Pa told them that he had brands on all his cattle, but it didn’t seem to make much difference to them.”

Jackson’s eyes, heavy-lidded and squinted, shifted left then right, in a threatening glare at the vision his thoughts evoked. I could almost feel the rage that the memory had set in him.

“They were no legal posse,” he said. “They were paid gunslingers and hired hands of the Cattlemen’s Association. The Invaders, they got to be called by most of the locals. Their job was to drive out the small landowners by whatever means necessary, tear down their fencing and get back the open rangeland.”

I was almost relieved for the break when the bartender arrived with two more beer; again leaving one in front of each of us. I paid him and turned back to hear more of the Cantrell’s tale. He was a great storyteller, and the beer was cheap. This was turning into a great afternoon; too bad Rick was missing this.

“So, what happened with the ‘posse’?” I asked.

Cantrell took a small sip of beer.

“I heard several loud gunshots. They echoed through the house like a stampede of horses. I ran to the door to have a look, expecting to see the riders bullying my family, shooting in the air and still shouting threats. But, when I peered out, my brother and Pa were on the ground, and Momma was screaming.

I scrambled around the house to get my rifle and some shells. Pa had taught me to shoot, hunting pronghorn. I was panicked and not as quick as I wanted to be. By the time I came out the door with my loaded gun, they’d all ridden off, except for one rider, who had his back to me. His gun was pointed at my Momma, crying over my brother, lying on the ground in a pool of blood beside my Pa. He fired once, and she slumped over my brother. He didn’t hear me coming up from behind. When he swung his horse around to face me, I had his head in my sights; damn near blew it clean off. His body flipped backward off his horse.”

I’d been holding my breath; it was time to breathe. I wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come out. He Paused, eyes shifting in my direction then back to the glass in his hand.

“My family had been murdered in front of me, and I killed one of the men that had done it. I was afraid some of the posse would return when they heard the loud crack of my rifle, and I knew they’d shoot me just as fast as the rest of my family. I removed the gunslingers gun n holster and the cash from his pockets then caught his horse and climbed up into the saddle. I took one final look at my family, lying in the blood-soaked dirt and left; my face was soaked in tears even though I didn’t remember cryin’. I headed out—west toward the mountains. I didn’t know where I was going; I was just riding.

Seen a lot of country since then, but I’ve never been back to the old homestead. Don’t imagine it’s even still there. But, that’s where I got the gun.”

I was still at a loss for words. I looked at the holstered gun, the weapon that had killed his mother and possibly the rest of the family.

Gawd! Six or seven years old. When I was that age, I could barely walk to school without help. I could not imagine having the maturity to do what he had done. What does someone that age do to survive in such a harsh environment? Words tumbled, almost incoherent, from my mouth.

“Where did you go? H-how did you live?” I asked.

His mouth was dry from telling his story; he paused for a drink then continued.

“Things were pretty tough for a while, but once I got over the loss of my family, life didn’t seem all that bad. I had a good horse and saddle, a gun n holster that was too big for me to wear, and a rifle. I roamed a lot of country.”

He gave a little snicker. “I wore an old floppy hat that hung down over my face to hide my age best I could. I worked when someone would hire a kid, earned a few dollars here and there.”

He paused for a drink and thought a bit.

“Stealing . . . , did a lot of stealing. I even got to thinking I was good at it. Until, one day in Casper, I must have been eleven or twelve by then, I tried to sneak out of a store with some rifle cartridges in my pocket, but the owner caught me. I think he would have killed me with the whippin’ he was about to lay on me, except a stranger stopped him. The two of them talked for a bit, the stranger hanging onto my collar all the while. Then he stepped on my foot to keep me from moving while he paid the man. I was impressed with his payin’ for my shells, but I remember I’d thought for sure all my toes had been broken. After that, we headed outside. He told me I was free to go. But for some reason, we stood and talked for a while. He was impressed that I had my own horse n saddle and rifle—bein’ alone and all—and I was grateful for the rifle shells he’d paid for. After a bit of talking, he offered me a job at his ranch, tending his horses. It sounded good; I had nowhere I had to be, so I took it.

His property was on the edge of the Big Horn Mountains, over near Dubois. It wasn’t much of a ranch; he had a bunch of horses and a few head of cattle, but I got paid some, and I had food on my plate and a bed to sleep in. He was one of the friendliest men I’d ever met, quick with a joke and he liked to tell stories. It wasn’t long, though, ’til I learned why he wasn’t much of a rancher.”

Cantrell paused long enough to take the last swallow of beer from his glass and settle back in his chair. This old man sure could suck ’em up; I flagged the barman to bring him one more. There was no way I could ever keep up with his drinking, but I didn’t mind paying for his beer and listening to the story.

“He was an outlaw, just like the ones the townsfolk here was tellin’ you about. He rustled cattle from the big range herds, held up banks, and robbed trains. The Funny thing was, everyone seemed to like him—even the odd lawman. He was a kind of Robin Hood, always sharin’ with those that needed it. His name was LeRoy—LeRoy Parker—though most of his close friends called him Butch. He’d done a little jail time, but still, he was one of the smartest men I’d ever met: a real schemer. When he planned a bank or train robbery, he’d have a relay of fresh horses waiting every few miles on their getaway route. That way, when they were being chased, there was always fresh horses waiting for them, while the posse’s horses just wore out.

There were hideouts in the mountains that a lot of those—desperados as you called them—could get lost in and not be found. Robbers Roost, Hole in the Wall; there were others. I got                to see some of them in my short time with Butch.”

I was absorbed in the tale, sitting on the edge of my chair, glued to his every word. Such an adventurist history. I could have listened for hours, but . . . .

Another person strode through the saloon door. His clothing was similar to Cantrell’s, although he appeared a slightly taller and younger man. His step was brisk, and when his oilskin coat flipped open it exposed a holstered six-gun, like a warning of, ‘Don’t mess with me’. His weathered face had the same three or four-day growth of beard. He glanced in our direction, then signaled to Jackson: a friendly—time to go‘—motion with a nod of his head then turned and breezed out of the bar as he had entered.

“Well, son, that there’s my Partner, so I suppose it’s time for me to head out.” He stood and reset his hat on his head and finished the last swallow of his beer.

I slid my chair back and stood up; he extended his arm, and we shook hands.

“Nice meetin’ ya, kid,” he said. “And, thanks for the beer.”

As he turned to leave, I called after him,

“Thanks for the story. I enjoyed it.”

He turned his head back toward me and touched his hat; a final goodbye.

There were so many questions that I’d never have answers to. I felt like I had my book taken away before I had reached the end of the novel.

The clock above the bar said 5:00 pm. The afternoon had passed quickly. I was about to go and wake up Rick when he walked into the bar.

“Man! I’m hungry,” he said, glancing at the nearly empty beer glass in front of me. “What’ve you been up to?”

We still had several hours before dad was expected. We ordered a light snack, and while we ate, I shared my afternoon experience with Jackson Cantrell and the unfinished story. But for some reason, the supply of beer ceased.

Rick had missed an amazing and memorable afternoon.

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