Posted by: lordkyler | April 12, 2014

Gunslanger – Short Story Week

Horatio Hughes adjusted his cards with trembling fingers, then reached for the fat cigar that hung awkwardly from his thin lips. He thought it unnatural to keep a burning ember mere inches away from his heavily-greased mustache and muttonchops, but he was trying to learn about the culture here, and as he had always said, the best way to learn is to do. Dust hung thick in the afternoon heat, and the saloon rumbled with the conversations of cattle drovers on their way through town. Somewhere, a man played an off-key fiddle, but nobody seemed to pay much attention.

Trying to avoid the sour stench of the unwashed masses, Horatio accidentally inhaled through his mouth and gagged on cigar smoke, then tried to sooth his throat with his untouched tumbler of whiskey. It burned like fire, but he choked it down, not wanting to appear weak. He wished for some tea.

“Made up yer mind, fella?” asked the grizzled old cowboy across from him. If one of their own had taken this long to decide whether or not to fold, they would have been annoyed, but as it was, the Englishman was proving quite the gold mine. Horatio realized how badly he was losing, but he considered it money well-spent in order to get an intimate view of the fabled cowboy. They were nicer than he had been led to believe, he decided. That wasn’t to say he was comfortable with them. They were hardly what one would call polite. Or clean. On top of that, most men carried firearms, wielding them with the same speed, ease, and precision as he did his pencil.

Horatio looked up from his cards and forced a smile. “I think – I think I shall remain in… gentlemen.” He looked back at his cards again and tried to reposition the cigar in his mouth. It spun around in circles but stayed rooted. “Yes, I think I shall stay.”

“You gonna call or raise, son?” asked Wild Bart. He was missing a couple of teeth and a couple of fingers, but he smiled often and shuffled the cards with the dexterity of a conjurer.

Horatio looked up to see all the men staring at him with blank faces and all the implacability of a brick. He chuckled, though it sounded more like a cough. “Rai- Call, of course. I call.”

Wild Bart revealed a pair of aces, and the old man showed three nines. Horatio looked down at his cards one last time. He had a hard time remembering all the different pairs that went together, but he thought he had a good hand. He had nearly the whole royal family, so it couldn’t be too rubbish, could it?

Before he could lay down his cards, the swinging doors of the saloon burst open, revealing a tall, slender man. If not for the angle of the noonday sun and the shade of the porch, he would have appeared as a dramatic silhouette. Horatio silently determined that any similar scenes in his novel would be thus staged.

“Where’s Slim Sam?” the stranger demanded. He was dressed mostly in blue, though his chaps and vest were made from spotless white leather, and silver buttons and buckles twinkled on his person like little stars. He kept one hand on a pearl-handled revolver at his waist. He did not seem to be here in order to pay a social visit.

The fiddle stopped abruptly. A man at the bar stood up. His clothes were faded, dirty black, and his lip was graced with a massive mustache that clung to his upper lip like some small woodland creature. “Who all’s asking’?” he drawled. His fingers hung idly next to the black iron revolvers slung from his waist.

“I’m with the sheriff’s office,” the man in blue replied. “Men call me Deputy Jim.” He flashed his badge, silver like the rest of his buttons and buckles. Horatio scrambled frantically for the notebook in his vest pocket, heedless of the frozen men around him. He had a feeling this was about to get very exciting, and he didn’t want to miss a single detail.

“Sent another young buck to try’n rope me in, huh?” said the man in black. “Ever’ week, it seems like there’s another.”

Jim ignored him. “I’m here to bring you in. You’ve taken too many liberties.”

“Sheriff don’t like that article I done wrote?” Slim said with a wry grin.

“He don’t- doesn’t like the way you wrote it.”

“Figured he wouldn’t,” said Slim. “You lawful types don’t much care for my kind of words, do ya?” He spat. “Lissen, son, I don’t care how good y’are, ain’t nobody gonna bring me in”

“Aha!” cried the young deputy. “Double negative! Caught you red-handed!”

Horatio’s pencil stumbled in its frantic scribblings.

“Seems t’me that my intent was clear in context, wouldn’t ya say?” asked Slim, his voice low and dangerous.

“You can’t just ignore all the rules, Sam,” the deputy said. “If we don’t preserve order, language will fall into chaos, and words will be meaningless.”

“Ain’t never heard such a load of bull. Why, if’n language didn’t change none, we’d be speakin’ Greek or Sumerian or some such. Language’s a livin’ thing, gotta have room ta grow.”

“I’m not here to argue, Slim. You can save it for the courts. Will you come in quietly or not?”

Slim Sam laughed. “And leave myself at the mercy of Old Man Webster? Not a chance.”

“Very well then, we’ll do this the hard way,” said Deputy Jim, hand inching closer to his revolver. “If you won’t acknowledge the laws, we’ll have to take you down.”

“There’s an exception to every rule, sonny. We tie ourselves down too tight, we’ll miss out on the rich pageantry of this here language.”

“I won’t take any more of this,” said the deputy. “Put up your hands or draw your weapon.”

The wiser patrons had begun to excuse themselves from the room, until only Horatio was left staring flabbergasted at the two men standing at opposite ends of the room. His pencil was still, his cigar fell from his lips into the whiskey glass, and his eyes were wide.

“Fine by me, son. Let’s draw. The only good linguistic prescriptivist is a dead one, anyhow.”

The two of them settled into a drawing stance and locked eyes.

“Dirty descriptivist,” sneered the man in blue.

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with embracin’ the flow of modern speech, whippersnapper,” replied the man in black. “Dead language belongs to dead men.”

“You’re not so quick, old man.”

“Listen here, ya insolent coyote, you may think yer a mighty quick gunslinger, but ain’t nobody never slang no gun faster’n I slung one.”

The deputy paused. “Slang isn’t the past tense of slung,” he said.

“Mebbe not when it were a noun, but these-a-days as a verb I don’t see no better alternative. Slung is already a word, same as you got that belt slung ’round yer hips.”

“I refuse to accept slang!” screamed the deputy.

“Well, it sure as shootin’ ain’t goin’ nowhere, pal,” said Slim. Quick as a wink, he drew his pistol and fired. His gun was back in its holster before Deputy Jim’s fingers had touched his own firearm. Dark blood stained the deputy’s shirt, and the man slumped to the floor.

“I’ll admit, that was pretty tense, stranger,” said Slim Sam. “But looks like now you’re past tense.” Draining a final shot of whiskey, he turned to Horatio. “Careful there, feller. Some of us don’t take kindly to the Queen’s English in these parts.” He tossed some coins on the bar and strode casually out of the room. Horatio was left staring dumbfounded at the door.

Eventually he picked up his pencil with trembling fingers, and using the last nub, scratched out all his notes.

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