Showdown in Prospect
by James Edward Rumpel
James Rumpel retired from teaching high school math in the spring of 2018. A couple of months later he decided to try and turn some of the many odd ideas circling his brain into science fiction and fantasy stories. Since that time, he has written nearly 200 short stories. Of those, 120 have been published in one form or another.
He thoroughly enjoys the writing process and while he doesn’t get too upset over rejections and other failures, he does like to think that his stories bring a little entertainment and maybe even a smile to others.
You can be updated on his most recent publications by checking out his Facebook page.
The young man standing across from Josiah was no more than a child, barely eighteen, if that old. Josiah could see the tension in his shoulders and the fear in his squinting eyes. Even in a fair fight, this kid didn’t stand a chance.
“We don’t have to do this,” called Josiah. His hands hung loosely at his side, the right inches from his holster.
“Yes, we do,” replied the boy. His voice cracked slightly. “If I’m gonna be the best, I got to beat the best.”
For a second, Josiah considered letting the kid win and putting an end to the constant challenges and needless deaths.
That thought disappeared the second the young man went for his gun. Instinctively, a single word exploded in Josiah’s mind, “Stop.”
His opponent stood motionless, his gun only halfway out of its holster. The boy would remain frozen in time until Josiah released him by thinking the word “Go.”
Josiah drew his pistol and fired, releasing his adversary from the curse of unmoving time as he shot.
The boy fell to the ground, his gun still not drawn. Blood slowly seeped onto his dirty white shirt, painting it an ugly deep red.
Josiah shook his head. This had to stop. He was sick of this life. There was only one thing to do. He had to journey to Prospect.
It had been a sunny spring day, twenty-five years earlier, when fate grabbed eight-year-old Josiah by the shoulders and spun him around to direct him down the path that made him the man he was today.
That morning, Josiah and his older brother, Ben, were playing a simple game with two old knives they had confiscated from their father’s tools. The boys took turns throwing the blades at the barn. If one stuck, a point was scored.
“That’s four for me,” called Josiah as the rusty knife embedded in the dried wood.
“It’s not fair,” replied Ben. “Your knife must be sharper than mine. We’re gonna switch for the next round.”
Reluctantly, Josiah agreed. Ben dropped the knife he had been using at Josiah’s feet and grabbed the other from the side of the barn.
“The score’s four to one,” announced Josiah.
“No, it’s zero to zero,” replied Ben. “We’re starting over now that you aint got a better knife than me.”
Even at his young age, Josiah understood his brother well enough to know that it would not be wise to make him any angrier than he already was. He picked the knife up from the ground.
“Okay, but I get to go first,” said Josiah.
Ben nodded. Josiah pulled back his arm and flung his new blade at the wall. It spun through the air and stuck in the board.
“I guess this knife isn’t so bad,” laughed Josiah as he went to retrieve it.
“You’re cheating,” shouted Ben.
Josiah turned to argue his innocence and noticed a glint of sunlight. Ben, overcome with anger, was throwing the other knife at him.
Young Josiah’s mind was quicker than his body. He wanted to shout “Stop,” but the word never came out; he was only able to think it.
Ben stood there, unmoving. The knife hanging between the fingertips of his extended arm.
Staring in disbelief, Josiah took a step toward his brother before deciding to get out of the knife’s potential path. He slid a few feet to the side. All the while, staring at Ben’s motionless figure.
After a short time, Josiah started to worry. Was his brother going to be like this forever? He had to do something. Finally, he thought, “Go.”
The knife flew from Ben’s hand and bounced off the barn, missing Josiah by a good foot.
Ben stared at Ben. “How’d you mo . . .” he started. “You were by the barn.” Without another word, Ben took off running.
Josiah never knew if his brother ran off out of fear or guilt over what he had nearly done. The two never talked about the incident but their relationship was changed from that point on.
The five-day ride to Prospect was uneventful. Josiah entertained the thought that maybe just moving to a different territory would solve his dilemma but, in his heart, he knew there was no other solution. Even if he settled someplace where he was not known, his reputation would follow. There were too many men out there dreaming of the opportunity to take down the second fastest gun in the west.
The town of Prospect was not much to look at. The town’s sole street was little more than a muddy path lined by a half-dozen run-down buildings on either side. Josiah smiled; he had expected the home of the west’s fastest gun to be a little more affluent.
He had barely reached the first building, a small stable and blacksmith shop, when a grubby little man ran up to his horse.
“I know you,” said the bearded tramp, “You’re Josiah Gray. I saw you gun down Efrem Jones in Abilene a couple years of back. Are you here to challenge Keller?”
Josiah gave a slight nod.
His lack of words did not keep the man from continuing the one-sided conversation. “No one’s come to challenge Keller in over a year. Everyone’s too scared to challenge him. Nobody’s ever gotten close to beating him.”
Josiah continued riding down the middle of the street. The largest building in the settlement was The High Noon Hotel and Bar. That was where he would find Luke Keller. He tied his horse to the rickety hitching post. The little man raced past him and into the saloon.
The doors swung open and a stranger stepped into the afternoon sunlight. This had to be Keller. Josiah was surprised by his appearance. An ample gut hung over his gun belt, covering the buckle and causing the holster to sit at an awkward angle. The man did not look like the killer he was supposed to be.
“Are you here to fight me?” asked Keller. His voice was high and squeaky.
“That’s my plan,” replied Josiah.
“If that’s what you want,” said Keller, “But first, you’re going to buy me a drink.”
Josiah started to shake his head and refuse. He wanted to get this over with. But he decided doing so wouldn’t cause any harm. “Sure, why not?”
The inside of the High Noon was much more inviting than the town itself. A beautifully crafted, oak bar sat in the middle of the room. The shelves behind it were stocked with dozens of bottles filled with all sorts of different brands of whiskey, brandy, and any number of other alcohols. A half-dozen green felt poker tables were scattered about, each surrounded by four sturdy chairs. There were about twenty people in the establishment. All of them turned to face Josiah and Keller as they entered. A few moved to allow the pair a clear path to the bar.
“There’s going to be a showdown, ain’t there?” said the old man who had confronted Josiah earlier. “I just knew . . .”
“Shut up and sit down, Bubba,” said Keller.
Without another word, Bubba closed his mouth and plopped himself down in the nearest chair.
Keller motioned to two large men standing next to a woman sitting near the stairway to the second floor. Josiah thought she was sort of pretty, not in the class of some of the women he had encountered in St. Louis or New Orleans, but still more attractive than what you would expect to run into in a town like this.
The men stepped aside but the woman just sat there glaring at Keller.
Keller took a couple of steps in her direction and said, “Julia, I know you want to be me. Come over here and give me a kiss.”
After a slight pause, the woman smiled and laughed. “Of course, I do,” she said. She sauntered up to Keller and gave him a peck on the cheek.
Keller turned to Josiah. “You don’t mind buying Julia a drink too.”
“Not at all,” said Josiah. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of coins and tossed them to the bartender. “I’ll have a whiskey and give these two whatever they want.”
“Bring the drinks to our table,” said Keller. “Let’s have a seat and get to know each other.”
Josiah was seventeen when fate gave him another push. It was the night of his cousin Jenny’s wedding. Ben and a few of his friends had been drinking quite a bit that day. Josiah had started the day with them but as they became more and more obnoxious, he abandoned them and went to sit outside.
He was staring at the stars when he heard yelling from inside the saloon. Ben’s voice was prominent among the shouts. With a heavy sigh, Josiah stood up and started toward the door. Two of Ben’s buddies burst through before he got there. The pair sprinted off into the darkness.
When he was just inside the door, Josiah saw his brother staring down Jess Parker. Jess was from the town down the road but everyone knew him. He had a reputation as a hothead and a killer.
“You apologize to me,” screamed Ben, his words heavily slurred. “I ain’t gonna ask again.”
Parker laughed. “What are you going to do about it?”
Josiah considered going to get the sheriff. There wasn’t enough time. Besides, Ben had instigated the fight.
Ben went for his gun.
“Stop,” thought Josiah.
Ben froze. Not that it mattered. Parker already has his pistol drawn and was firing. Ben fell to the ground, Josiah’s spell broken by the deadly bullet.
Josiah ran to his fallen brother, anger and guilt surging inside. He had done this. It was his fault.
“And just who are you?” asked Parker while he returned his gun to its holster.
Josiah turned to look at the man who had shot Ben. Whatever internal dam holding his welling anger in place gave way. “That was my brother,” he shouted. “You’re going to pay.”
He rose to his feet and faced Parker. He started to clumsily draw his gun but he instantly knew there was no way he would get it out in time.
Well, there was one way.
“Stop,” he yelled in his thoughts.
“So, you’ll agree to sign the contract saying that I have claim to all of your property after I beat you in the dual,” said Keller.
“Sure,” replied Josiah. What difference did it make to him if he was dead? Let Keller have his horse, gun, and the few dollars he had on him. He didn’t have to tell him about the stash he had hidden in a cave outside of Waco. He signed the paper.
“And tell me about any other places you might have money hidden,” continued Keller.
“Well, I do have some money hidden in the abandoned Mercy Hill Mine a few miles from Waco. It’s buried at the dead-end of the fourth shaft on the right side.” Josiah was surprised at how easily he shared that information but if he lost the gunfight it wouldn’t matter.
“Okay, well I guess that covers everything. You’re ready to go out on the street and have our dual.”
Josiah nodded. “Yes, I am ready.”
Josiah was eighteen when fate made its boldest move yet. He had managed to stay out of trouble since the Jess Parker incident. The testimonies of the witnesses had convinced the sheriff that Josiah had acted in self-defense. His success against Parker, however, had earned him enough of a reputation that he was hired as a guard on the Wells-Fargo stagecoach that ran through the area.
His time riding with the stage was uneventful until one summer afternoon. The wagon was carrying a couple of passengers and a lockbox with some payroll money being sent to the bank in Abilene.
The driver, Pete, spotted the large tree that had been dragged across the trail before Josiah.
“That’s not good,” said the old man. He pulled back the reins and stopped the horses. “That didn’t happen naturally.” Reaching behind the seat, Pete grabbed his rifle.
“What do we do?” asked Josiah. “Do we turn around and go back?”
“Why are we stopping?” asked a voice from inside the coach. The side door started to open.
“Jump down and keep them inside,” ordered the driver.
Josiah did as he was told, but in doing so, he failed to notice that the door on the other side open and a man climb out.
“Drop that rifle!” shouted that man from the other side of the stagecoach. He had a gun pointed at Pete.
“And you unhitch your gun belt,” said a voice from inside the coach. Josiah saw the barrel of a rifle sticking out the window.
Josiah tossed his holster and weapon off to the side. The rifle-toting robber emerged from the stage.
The one holding a gun on Pete directed the old man to climb down and stand next to Josiah. Soon the sound of approaching horses broke the silence.
A third man, riding a black stallion and pulling two other horses, stopped by the stage. He drew his gun and pointed it at Josiah and the driver. There was an air of authority about him; Josiah instantly identified him as the leader. A conjecture that was quickly confirmed when the man shouted orders to the others. “Jake, grab the moneybox. Let’s get out of here as soon as possible.”
One of the men climbed on top of the coach and tried to grab the box. “It’s chained to the wagon,” he shouted.
The leader, still on horseback, pointed his pistol toward Pete and Josiah. “Where’s the key?”
“It’s in my pocket,” replied Pete. “I’ll get it for you.” He reached into his pocket and fumbled around for a moment. Suddenly, he pulled out a small derringer and fired a shot at the man on the stage. The thief ducked just in time to avoid the bullet.
The next few seconds were a whirlwind of action. The man on the horse shot Pete. Josiah dove for his gun. Before he hit the ground, he turned toward the man holding the rifle on him and thought “Stop.” Once he landed, he rolled over, grabbing his gun in the process. He found himself looking up at the horseback man. “Stop,” he thought again. The man froze, a surprised look plastered on his face. Continuing to roll, Josiah heard a bullet ricochet off a nearby rock. This time he didn’t bother to try and freeze the last assailant. He simply fired in the man’s direction. Barely able to breathe, he waited for another shot and with it, death. That shot never came.
He wasn’t sure how long the first two robbers would remain frozen, so, even though it felt wrong, he quickly fired a shot into each of them. Neither of them moved once they hit the ground, but it had nothing to do with Josiah’s strange power.
Josiah went to Pete. The old man was alive, the bullet had hit him in the right shoulder.
“How’d you do that, boy?” asked Pete.
“I just got lucky, I guess,” replied Josiah.
“It was more than luck,” said Pete. “I was a bit groggy from being shot so I don’t know exactly what happened but I do know you were fast enough to take down three armed men. And that one over there,” he pointed toward the body lying under the horse, “is . . . was Matt Snyder, the fastest gun in the county.”
“Well, let’s just keep that our little secret,” suggested Josiah.
“Oh, this is a story, I’m gonna be tellin’ everybody,” laughed Pete.
A crowd of about twenty-five people waited for Keller and Josiah on the street. When the two emerged from the saloon there was a brief cheer led by Bubba.
Keller addressed the crowd. “This gunfight will follow all of the rules we use here in Prospect. We will face off at a distance of ten feet.”
“Isn’t that a little close,” said Josiah.
“It might be, but you’re okay with that.”
There was no shooting skill needed from that distance. Maybe that was the only distance from which an overweight, drunken slob like Keller could hit his target. Josiah wanted to argue. Instead, he found himself nodding.
“Fine, let’s get this over with,” he said.
Before the two gunfighters took their positions, Keller leaned in close to Josiah and whispered, “You’re not going to shoot me. You’ll pull your gun but not shoot.”
What Keller said made perfect sense. It would put an end to the years of constant challenges he had faced. From the day he decided to make the trip to Prospect, Josiah had gone back and forth over what he intended to do. Sometimes he planned to lose on purpose. Other times he felt that if he were to win it would scare away all the potential challengers that were out there. He could live without the constant confrontations.
“One,” called Bubba, yelling loud enough that they heard him in Tulsa.
Josiah half-heartedly began to pull his pistol out of its holster. He watched Keller do the same. Keller’s draw was slow and meticulous, hardly that of the fastest gun in the west.
With death fractions of a second away, the realization hit Josiah; he didn’t want to die. “Stop,” he thought.
Josiah stood there staring at Keller’s paralyzed body. The man stood there with his gun aimed at Josiah but motionless, not even a blink or the slightest twitch. Josiah could have shot him with ease but, for some reason, had no desire to do so.
The crowd stared at the scene before them, bewildered.
“What’d you do to him?” asked Bubba after nearly a minute.
Without a word, Josiah turned and walked back toward the saloon and his horse. Once, when he was in his early twenties, he had left a man frozen. He hadn’t stuck around to see how long the spell lasted but a week or so later he heard that the man’s motionless body had been found in a back alley. The man had stayed paralyzed for a couple of days, only snapping out of it when someone gave him a hard slap across the face. Josiah assumed Keller would remain static until the same thing happened.
Once Josiah reached his horse, he realized that he no longer felt compelled to not shoot Keller. He took out his gun and pointed it at the frigid gunfighter. He was considering pulling the trigger when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Go ahead and shoot him if you want,” said Julia. “You’re out of the range of his magic.”
“Oh, you must have felt it. He makes people do what he tells them to as long as they are within ten feet. He’s been holding me here for six months.”
Josiah stared at the woman. “So, that’s why I couldn’t shoot and why I told him about my money. But if you knew about the magic, why didn’t you just get far enough away from him and leave?”
Julia pointed to the pair of men who had been standing by her earlier. They had joined the people gathered around Keller. Members of the crowd were tentatively touching his body or trying to wake him up by shouting in his ears. “He hired those two goons to watch me whenever I was further than ten feet from him.”
“They’re not watching you now,” suggested Josiah.
“I know. I was wondering if I could leave with you.”
Josiah considered the idea. With proper companionship, the prospect of finding a remote place to settle down didn’t seem like a bad idea. Maybe what happened here would earn him enough of a reputation to put an end to the parade of challengers. The least he could do was get to know Julia a little better.
“But what about him? He’ll come out of it eventually.” Josiah gestured toward Keller. “What about the people of the town? He must use his magic on them too.”
“They could resist if they wanted to. They have the numbers to overpower him. They’re all too happy to have him and his ‘reputation’ to make them feel special. This god-forsaken place deserves him and he deserves them.”
“Well, I’m leaving,” announced Josiah. “You’re welcome to come along. I’d enjoy the company.”
“Great,” said Julia. “Let me go get one of Keller’s horses from the stable and we can get out of Prospect.”
Two years later, Josiah and Julia sat on the front porch of their small cabin in Illinois. She bounced a two-month-old child on her knee. The Midwest was less wild than the West. Since moving here and changing his name, no one suspected that he was the famous gunfighter, Josiah Grey.
Fate had finally let him go his own way.