It was an early afternoon in a small town in Johnson County, Wyoming — population 279. A movie set could not be more representative of the mid-1800’s wild-west atmosphere the locale presented. The only modern feature was the paved highway that passed through it.
Our car had developed engine problems the night before. Bobby and I were on the last leg of a road trip. Just a couple of buddies on a travel adventure across America, anxious-but-not, to get home. The car crawled into the only service station in town — an old converted livery stable from before the discovery of oil — the engine was finished.
We were trapped in the American Midwest. With no real options, I made a desperately embarrassing long-distance phone to summon help. My dad would come to our rescue. He wouldn’t arrive for at least twenty-four hours. I knew I would own him forever. We got a room for the night in the hotel above the saloon.
Bobby and I spent the morning strolling around the town, chatting with the locals, listening to folklore that at times stretched the imagination of reality — stories of wild west cowboys, desperados, and lawmen of legend, who had lived-in, passed through, and some that had died violently by the gun. By noon we were exhausted. Dad wouldn’t arrive until early evening and would probably want to stay the night, so we booked the room for one more day. Bobby decided to take an afternoon nap. I went into the Saloon to relax. I order a Coke and sat contemplating the mornings history lesson.
An old chap shuffled through the saloon doors, a cowboy hat, possibly of the same vintage as him, draped over his head, his eyes focused on the floor just beyond his step. As he moved past the bar, his head lifted slightly, glimpsing the barkeep. With a flick of his finger, he ordered a drink then continued in my direction. As the old man approached, he noticed me and hesitated for a moment before turning slightly, choosing the table to my right and settling himself into the chair. Perhaps I sitting at his usual spot. By the time he got seated, the bartender had placed a beer on his table and was headed back toward the bar. As he passed my table, the server gave me a wink, not sure why, but perhaps a friendly suggestion of something to come.
The cowboy removed his hat with one hand, while he stroked back his long white hair. A partially missing ear and a scar on his left cheek begged a story be told of what had happened. Re-donning his headgear, he reached for his glass, took a swallow of beer and gave a sigh, as if that was all the work he could muster for the moment. His squinted eyes drifted in my direction, and he nodded a silent, ‘Hello.’
Beneath a two-or-three-day’s growth of beard, his face was tanned and wrinkled, expressing 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 reached forward placing his glass back on the table, his oilskin coat slid back from his hip, revealing a revolver, snugged into a low-slung holster strapped to his leg.
My Gawd! A western gunslinger? I thought. Was there a movie being made in town? Was this an actor taking a break, waiting for a call to his scene?
His eyes again shifted in my direction, aware of my staring at the weapon on his hip;
“You never saw a revolver before, son?”
His voice was deeper than I was expecting—slow and measured, with a drawl—a John Wayne drawn-out sort of speak. This storybook character, with a voice to match, had my total attention. I was mesmerized. In awe. I stumbled 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?
“It’s real alright,” he said, then paused for a moment.
“Been with me a long time. Don’t get much use out of it anymore—’cept maybe to shoot the odd coyote.”
He looked directly at me, then introduced himself.
“Names . . . , Jackson Cantrell.”
The name rolled off his tongue like it should have been preceded with a drum crescendo.
“Adam Hayden,” I managed to squeeze out.
He unholstered the weapon and laid it on my table. Apparently, I was no threat. I stared at it for a moment, just lying next to my coke, then I gingerly picked it up.
“Careful there son,” he said. “She’s loaded.”
Like he had to warn me. It was cold and cumbersome. The metal, tarnished from years of exposure, was otherwise in pristine condition. The wooden grip was a dark chocolate colour, smooth and shiny from the sweat and oils of years of handling. I could see the bullets in the cylinder waiting to be fired. 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’d ever seen of such a gun was in movies and on TV. It was daunting seeing one strapped to the side of someone’s leg, next to me. Now I was actually holding it in my hands.
“It looks old,” I said.
“Well, it is. ‘Bout sixty-five years or more, I reckon.” The words chewed out of his mouth. “Startin’ to show its years, though—kinda like me.” 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! What did the notches represent? A scorecard of killings? Human lives taken with this weapon? Why was he wearing it now? Questions I was almost afraid to ask. I thought about the age he said was and the stories I’d heard from some of the town folk earlier today. If the gun was sixty-five years old, it had come from the late 1800’s; the time of the outlaws, like the Wild Bunch.
“Sixty-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! Did I actually ask that? He’s got to think I’m a moron trying to mimic him.’
A slight smile curved a corner of his mouth and then faded. He reached for his glass, then remembering it was empty, rested back in his chair. That movement grabbed me like cue to action; I looked toward the bar, signaling the barman to bring another round, then we sat—silent—waiting. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so nosy. Or, was he simply thinking of a memory of his past, to share with the kid he had for an audience? After what seemed an eternity, the bartender approached us; on his tray were two glasses of beer and a coke. He placed the coke on the far side of my table and a beer in front of the old cowboy and the other in front of me. It seemed unusual; I was sure I was under age for Wyoming. Perhaps that wasn’t such a concern out here in the wild west 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 looking again in my direction. He motioned his glass toward me; a silent salute of ‘Thanks,’ and took a swallow, then settled back in his chair.
The gunslinger spoke. “You a stranger to Wyoming, son?”
I told him about Bobby’s and my journey on our way back to Alberta, about the car breaking down and our waiting for a ride. He listened—I’d bought him a beer.
“Alberta,” he said. “Good cattle country, a bit like Wyoming, you might agree?”
I told him that what little I knew of the area, I’d learned today from a few of the townsfolk.
“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 little snicker. “There was lawlessness alright,” he said. “Didn’t seem all that romantic at the time. It was the life—for some a short one.”
He stared down at his drink, retreating in 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 arrived, and that was good for the cattle markets. But it also brought in settlers, who set up their small ranches and farms, complete with government-endowed settler’s deeds. They fenced their properties; cutting up the open rangelands, blocking off large parts of grassland from the larger herds of the wealthy cattle barons and causing detours for the large cattle drives.”
As he told his story, he spoke slowly, pausing for effect and to think out what he was about to say. He was a master of the tale. He continued.
“Hostility grew pretty high between them. These new, small-time farmers were intruders, a thorn in the way it used to be — destroyers of the open land for cattle grazing and herding. The owners of the massive herds of cattle 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. They turned to a more aggressive approach to ridding themselves of their problem; threatening the small landowners, burning them out, even killing.”
“Were you around here, then?” I asked.
“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. I suppose it was a start.”
He hesitated and took a large swallow of beer.
“One day in the spring of ’92, my Momma, Pa and older brother were workin’ in the yard, when a posse for the cattlemen’s association rode in, kicking up a cloud of dust. 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 being threatened, 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, like a threatening glare. 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 members 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 cowboy’s tale. He was a great storyteller, and the beer was cheap. It was turning into a great afternoon; too bad Bobby 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 laying on the ground, and momma was screaming.
I scrambled around the house to get the rifle and some shells. Pa had taught me to shoot when we hunted pronghorn. I was panicked and not as quick as I wanted to be. By the time I came out the door with the gun loaded, they’d all ridden off, except for one rider. I could hear Momma sobbing. A man was sitting on his horse, with his back to me and a gun in his hand, pointed it at my momma, on her knees crying over my brother’s body. 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 hesitated a moment, his eyes moving to look at me, then back to the glass in his hands resting on the table.
“My whole family had been murdered in front of me, and I had just 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. My eyes dropped to the holstered six-shooter; the gun that had killed his mother and possibly the rest of the family.
Six or seven years old. When I was that age, I could barely walk to school without help. I could not imagine, having the calm 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.
“Pretty much hand to mouth. Strange thing was, 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.”
He 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 planner. When he and some of his gang would rob a bank or a train, he would set up a relay of fresh horses every few miles on their getaway route. When they were being chased, the posse’s horses just played out after a short while, but he had fresh horses waiting along the way for him and his men.
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. Another person strode through the saloon doors. He was dressed in rugged cowboy clothing similar to Cantrell, although slightly taller and possibly younger. His step was brisk—his oilskin coat flipped open, exposing a holstered six-gun hanging from his hip, strapped to his leg. His weathered face had the same three or four-day growth of beard. He 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 Bobby 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 strange reason, the supply of beer ceased. Bobby had really missed a great afternoon.