Short Story: Duel at High Noon

Duel at High-Noon

Jack Warner and Rick Smith were out in the center’a town. When the big clock tower at its edge shifted from eleven and fifty-eight to eleven and fifty-nine, they did an about face to take their paces. Thirty paces it was, each one counted by the men and townsfolk that lingered on the edges’a the town’s center. It was one’a them old places’a wood and brick that people’d taken to calling the old West. Weren’t nothing any could do ’bout that– was the fault of them big-cities springin’ up ‘long the coast that seemed like they was the future, while Warner ‘n Smith were the past ‘stead’a the present.

Didn’t rightly seem to matter as they took their thirty paces through the little whirls’a dust that ran through town. As the last few paces came up, the crowd began a slow roar, like they was ragin’ to see who’d be the first to drop. Warner’s smug countenance might’a been permanent were it not for the oft-times drunken droop of his eyes. At that, ol’ Smitty had ‘im beat, no matter what outcome the future reckoned to bring.

At thirty paces they stopped, waited for the bell to toll noon on the clock tower. Three chimes, and one of ’em’d be dead. Neither man thought it’d be him. Even the townsfolk weren’t quite yet. All the same, their roar settled to whispers when the men’s spurs stopped their jangle. There was a collective breath, a look toward the big clock at the end’a town, and the light shake’a the men’s hands near their holstered six-guns.

Not Jack nor Rick could’a known what was ’bout to happen to ’em. Seein’ wasn’t their specialty, shootin’ was. Ol’ Smitty ‘n Warner’d been feudin’ long enough that this seemed the right, only way to determine whose honor was more solid. Both men said theirs. True as that may’ve been, ol’ Smitty was in debt a horse and a case’a whiskey to Warner, who’d seen fit to stuff Smitty’s own horse with gunpowder and light it off when he didn’t pay up. No one argued with either man’s right to the claim, lest they wanna’ end up at one end’a the duel or another.

The first toll of the bell came. The men’s hands were at their shooters. The second toll and the crowd had frozen, stiff and silent. By the third toll, both men drew. Somethin’ gave half a pause– the bell’d cut out too early, as though stopped mid-ring by strong pair’a hands. Like the true, ornerous cusses they were, they each dove for the ground, rolled off in separate directions with their six-shooters barkin’ their war-cries.

Ol’ Smitty made for a horse that had stood still to one side’a town. He dove behind it, half expectin’ a kick in the head as his shooter barked right over its hind-quarters. Instead it stayed still as dead man in the ground. Like him, Warner’d dove for a water trough, had to spring up to bark at Smitty over another horse’s saddle. Warner figured his second shot’d ricochet off the saddle when the horse bucked, too scared for its own good. But like Smitty’s, it stood still as a stiff.

Both men were up ‘n ready in turn, their six-guns barking through a silence that neither man’d notice had a hand smacked ’em in the head to listen. Smitty’s revolver went quite first. He was behind the corner of Doc Halverson’s apothecary with ample time to reload. Warner’d dove for the Saloon’s edge, laid there to peek ’round the corner and blast a shot ‘tween the horse’s hooves. Like Smith, his gun was outta’ lead.

The two men were hidden, the duel longer ‘n more spectacular than any they’d seen or been part of. But even so, the town was quiet. Smitty finished fillin’ his revolver, made like he was gonna’ take another shot at the Saloon’s edge. He was petrified to terror, confused by the sights and sounds– or lack thereof– that greeted ‘im.

The whole town was quiet, like not a man breathed there, never had. Even the little whirls of wind and dust in the middle’a town had gone still. That was when Smitty saw ’em; the townsfolk, just as they’d been when the second bell tolled. They were frozen, like some ancient creature’d turned ’em to stone, stole ’em from time. Smitty couldn’t keep it up. His heart was racin’ with terror, ‘n he doubted Warner knew what’d happened.

He pulled back behind the apothecary building, just in time to shout out at Warner before he’d finished reloading.

“’Ey Jack,” Smitty called through the silence. “Wh-hat say you to a parlay?”

Warner was up with his gun reloaded, his head hot, “You gone yella’ on me, Smit?”

He jumped from the corner ready to shoot, struck by the quiet stillness around him.

“I-I ain’t yella’ Jack, but look ’round ya,” Smitty called.

Warner eased up outta’ his braced stance, his spurs closer to one another, and cried out loud, “The Devil’s work! I tell ya it’s the Devil’s work!”

Smitty couldn’t hear ‘im, but he called out again, “I-I reckon… m-maybe we should call this one off, for the time bein’. What say you, Jack?”

Warner ambled forward like a lost, wounded coyote on its last legs. His shooter was limp at his side. He stumbled into a run that saw him skid to a halt in front’a the assembly outside the saloon.

“Able?” Warner said. He waved a hand in front of the barkeep’s face. He did the same to his favorite whore, then the den-lady, “Molly? Virginia!” He back-stepped in terror, “What’s happened? Is this some kind’a joke? It ain’t funny! Ya’ hear? It ain’t funny!” He shouted at Doc Halverson’s face so loud he might’a broke the old fella’s ears, “It ain’t funny no more!”

Smitty heard the cries, called to Warner, “’Ey Jack, I’m comin’ out. No funny stuff!”

Warner rushed up and down the shop-fronts, hollerin’ at the townsfolk. He gave ol’ Buck the Sheriff a heavy shove out front’a the jail. “It ain’t funny!”

Buck fell back like he was made’a stone, landed as he’d stood, just a little more horizontal than before. Warner stumbled back, horrified by the goin’s-on. He backed up so fast ‘n so far he toppled backward over the railing. His shooter flew through the air. It landed on the dusty ground same as him, though at the feet of Smitty whose revolver was still in hand. Warner rolled over, skittered back on his hands ‘n up against the outerside of the railing while Smitty scooped down to pick up Warner’s revolver, held both in his hands.

Warner made a face like Smitty was ’bout to pump him full’a holes. But instead, he stretched up, puffed out his chest and holstered his gun, “I reckon I ought’a be the bigger man here. Ain’t no honor in killin’ a cowerin’ man.”

Warner inched his way up to his feet, ready to run at the first signs’a deception. Smitty showed none. He even handed Warner back his gun on promise that he not use it. They parted ways when Smitty started down the town’s center, perplexed and confused like a blind man in the desert dyin’a dehydration. His fear’d left him with nothin’ more than a slight rumble in his guts. He was stopped across from the post office when Warner’d finally found his feet, got his wits about him.

He watched Smitty walk, heaved himself up the steps and into the saloon. It was empty from their noon-time duel, so he helped himself to a bottle’a rye from behind the bar. He sat in a stool there, his mind and body doin’ their best to fight shakes’a fear. It was a few minutes before the swingin’ doors clamored open. Warner’s revolver was out to meet Smitty’s as he stepped inside. It lowered for fear of bein’ the only man in town not afflicted by the sudden petrification.

Smitty lowered his gun too, made slow steps for the bar, came ’round behind it. He grabbed a bottle’a rye with one hand, pulled the cork out with his teeth, ‘n spit it sideways. He downed a large helping, slammed the bottle back down.

His revolver scraped his leather holster as he braced himself against the bar’s back-side with one hand, “Whatever’s gotten into ’em out there, it’s hit the whole town. We’re the only two that ain’t effected. Even the fella’s at the barbers, ‘n the ladies cowerin in their homes are all just the same. Children too.”

Warner drank his fill, more drunk by the minute to calm his nerves, “It ain’t right. I tell ya’ it ain’t right!

Smitty ripped the bottle out of his hand, “It mightn’t be, but it is what it is, Warner. Now you keep your wits about you or I’m gonna’ settle you with the back’a my hand.”

“Ya’s always was a horse’s ass, Smit!” Warner cried, gripped by his fears. “How d’you think we’re gonna’ help all those people? ‘N if we don’t, are we goin’ to be alone forever?”

Smitty looked around the bar, “I reckon if there’s a solution, it’ll come to us, but it won’t find you well if yer’ in here soused to the gills and scared outta’ yer wits.”

Warner grit his teeth, ground ’em together like his temper was ’bout to explode, “Y’know you’re an angry ‘ol cuss Smit. I bet’cha it’s all yer fault. If you’d just paid me my dues, none’a this would’a happened.”

Smith took a swig from his bottle, slammed it down again, “Don’t be thick as a mule. You know ‘n I know there ain’t no way a debt like that could’a helped this even had it been repaid.”

Warner was up, his head hot, “I reckon it could’ve. Ya’ see, cause I’ve been havin’ me a thought.”

“Oh a thought is it?” Smit said as he drug himself ‘long the bar. He stepped up to a Warner with a stool ‘tween ’em and little else. Warner stiffened up at Smitty’s barrel that rose beneath his chin, “You say yer havin’ a thought. Well I reckon as we’re the only two ’round, you might tell me this thought ‘fore I have one myself.”

Warner’s eyes were convicted like a man in his last moments, sentenced to death for a crime he hadn’t committed, “I’m havin’ this thought, ‘n I reckon if yer smart ’nuff as a man ought to be, you’d agree with me.”

Smitty’s teeth grit, and his barrel stabbed the side’a Warner’s throat, “Oh yeah?”

“I reckon, if’n you look around at that scene out there, ‘n you pay partik-ler attention to the clock, you’ll see it’s stopped. If’n I’m not mistaken, it’s stopped right ’bout the time we were fixin’ to kill one ‘nother.” Smitty’s eyes left Warner’s, wandered a trail to the saloon doors. Warner made a slight tilt with his head, “G’wan, see fer yerself. I reckon I’ll be here, thinkin’ my thoughts.”

The barrel eased away from Warner’s throat. Smitty walked the same trail to the saloon’s doors his eyes had. He gave a glance back at Warner as he readied to step outside. Warner fell to his stool like a man who’d carried a trail-pack too long might. He drank from the bottle as Smitty slipped outside.

Smitty stepped back to the center’a town, looked up the long road’a store-fronts ‘n such, and raised his eyes to the bell-tower and clock at the back’a town. Like Warner’d said, the clock hadn’t budged an inch. More perplexing was the bell’s state; it hung in a half-swing, mid-chime, as if time itself had frozen it there at that moment when the two men were ’bout to make murderers of one of ’em.

Smitty returned to the saloon, made his way through to a stool beside Warner. His shooter was up in the air, ready to rain hell on the man that’d smited him. Instead, Smit’s thumb clicked the hammer up, ‘n his hand slipped it back into its holster as the rest of ‘im deposited into the seat.

“Jack, I reckon… I reckon maybe you’re right,” Smitty admitted with all the effort of a miner’s day’s work.

It gave Jack a chuckle. He slid the bottle’a rye down to Smit, “I reckon if you’re that big’a man, you deserve some’a this.”

Smit sucked down a good portion of the bottle, “Y’know Jack, I was thinkin… ’bout that time the Reds tried to snatch us off the trail. By my count, you saved my life that day, ‘n I owed you one.”

Jack gave a small nod; he recollected that well, “I reckon you’re right.”

Smit took another drink, “I might be inclined to forgive all this on’a count that, if’n maybe you apologized ’bout my horse you done ‘sploded last week.”

Jack’s head titled with another nod, “’N I might be inclined to ‘pologize for that, if’n you promised to repay me– for real this time, Smit.”

Smitty reached into his pocket, drew out a handful’a gold coins. He started to count ’em, then gave up, slapped the whole handful on the bar in front’a Jack, “I reckon that’s what I owe you, with a little interest to boot.”

“I sure appreciate it, Smit,” Jack said as he pocketed the gold, lifted the bottle of Rye from in front’a Smitty.

He took a long drink with his eyes closed, ‘n when he opened ’em again, he was nearly petrified like the townsfolk’d been. Their dull roar’d come back, and the bell’d tolled again as he found himself thirty paces from Smitty in the center’a town. The bell tolled a second time and he recollected his wits, felt the weight’a gold in his pocket, his debt repaid. The third toll saw him whip ’round to face Smitty, both men hesitant to draw their shooters.

That last ring’a the bell gave way into silence, ‘n it was the last time either of the men ever thought to draw from temper. The townsfolk cooed and cried about yella’bellies ‘n such, but Smitty ‘n Jack took fifteen paces each, met one another in the center of the duelin’ pitch. They didn’t need words to tell what they was both thinkin’, one just followed t’other into the saloon and sat down for a drink.

None’a the townsfolk knew quite what to make of it, and neither’a the men bothered to tell the tale, but the duel at high-noon that day was unlike any man’d seen before or since.

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