“Hey Thorn, ain’t you left yet?” Buck Chambers hollered across the café. Buck Chambers was a local who made a living bounty hunting, hiring out as an extra hand on trail drives, and, if you believed the stories some told, rustling cattle and stealing from travelers. Of course, since he was still walking around, those last two occupations had never been proven.
There was no doubt, however, that he was a mean and vindictive man who had it in for John Thorn. In the ten years that John Thorn and his family had lived in Tender Bush, Chambers had, at every opportunity, tried to stir up trouble. The gossip amongst most townsfolk was that their feud was over an incident during the Civil War—or as some called it, the War of Northern Aggression.
John Thorn had been a cavalry officer on the Union side in the Civil War and in fact had served under Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick in the Battle of Waynesboro that broke open the way for General Sherman’s infantry to break through to Savannah and complete his famous “march to the sea.” Chambers, on the other hand, had served in Quantrill’s Raiders—a force of guerrilla fighters that, after they slaughtered 183 men and boys in Lawrenceville Kansas, were considered by most to be no better than outlaws and bushwhackers.
No one was sure that Chambers had been involved in the Lawrenceville Massacre but there was no doubt that he was a heavily-muscled lout and a loudmouthed bully who preferred to fight only when the odds were in his favor. Women, smaller men, and young boys learned to stay out of his way—particularly if he’d been in the saloon.
Over the years, John Thorn had generally ignored Chambers but townsfolk still talked about the time that the big man had just finished a particularly unlucky game of poker and stumbled into the street almost under the hoofs of the horses pulling Mrs. Thorn’s buckboard. No one was quite sure what Chambers had said but a day later, John Thorn came into town, called him out of the rooming house and nearly beat the man to death right there in the street.
For a long time, even though Chambers claimed he was drunk at the time and had simply passed out, people noticed that he tended to cross the street if he saw Thorn coming. Sadly, all good things must come to an end and a year or so ago, the big man regained his courage and had gone back to his old ways.
“Yo, Thorn!” Chambers said loudly. “You going to burn this town down before you move on like you did Atlanta? Or are you just planning on raping the women and stealing the crops like your people did in the Carolinas? What’d that crazy bastard, Cump Sherman, call it? Oh yeah, ‘scorched earth.’”
There were two rough-looking men at Chambers’ table—one skinny with a long scar on his face and the other a lot shorter but heavy-set with a look of hired muscle–and they were laughing at everything he said as he continued. “Pretty fancy name for just marching through and stealing stuff.”
This was typical of Chambers. He’d keep on goading his opponent, hoping that he could fan the flames of anger into rage so that, when a fight broke out, his opponent wouldn’t notice that the odds were stacked against him. Except for that one time with John Thorn, Chambers had never gone into a scrap without a couple of friends or a hideout pistol.
It was a strategy that had worked many times on many men—all of whom regretted it–but Thorn appeared to take pleasure in frustrating Chambers. Every time he wouldn’t take the bait, he knew that anyone watching remembered how Thorn had already beat the tar out of him once. Chambers knew it as well and it simply infuriated him.
Lately, Chambers had been trying even harder with the clear expectation of a fight with a very different outcome—preferably one that included a bullet-hole in Thorn’s gut.
But John Thorn just tucked into his biscuits and went right on talking to his neighbor as if Chambers hadn’t spoken at all. To everyone watching it was clear Thorn’s calm attitude had made Chambers almost blind with fury, but he held his seat and just glared at Thorn for a moment or two before starting his breakfast.
When Thorn had wiped up every smidgen of gravy with the last biscuit, he shook hands with Harry, and said he’d write about the land in California. Then he took his leave of one or two other fellow ranchers who had also come in to eat at the rooming house.
On his way out, Thorn stopped at the front desk to pay for his breakfast. Chambers never took his eyes off the rancher and suddenly, got up to pay, leaving his breakfast only half-eaten.
Chambers reached the front desk as the clerk was making change for Thorn’s order. There were a couple of people in front of him but Chambers had never been a patient man. He said loudly that, “the damn sheep in front of me better move out of the way,” and jostled an old man who didn’t move quick enough sprawling onto the floor. Then he plowed right into Thorn, shoving him to the side and into a stack of chairs.
“Hey, watch where you’re going!” Chambers snarled.
John took his time stabilizing the stack of chairs and then walked over to old man get back on his feet. As he dusted off the man’s coat, he said over his shoulder, “Mr. Chambers. Do you really wish for me to continue your education in the manners of a civilized society?”
“Hell, Thorn, I got no idea what you’re talking about.” Chambers yelled. “ But I do know you’re as yellow as a cob of ripe corn. Now, turn around and face me, you coward. I ain’t drunk and half-dead like I was the last time.”
Thorn continued to help the old man out of the rooming house without paying the slightest attention to Chambers.
The big man’s face began to turn a deepening shade of red and veins pulsed in his temples. His voice rose to a roar that would have done credit to a prize bull. “You think I’m going to let you leave town without settling the score between us?”
Chambers squared his shoulders and faced Thorn, daring him to attack. Meanwhile, the front room of the rooming house had gone empty, the clerk was on the floor behind the counter, and the cook and his boy were down behind the old iron stove in case a bullet came right through the wall.
“I have a meeting right now and simply haven’t the time free to finish your schooling right at this moment.” Thorn walked right up to Chambers and then passed him to stop at the counter. He looked over at the desk clerk on the floor, pointed at a coin that would have paid for a dozen breakfasts, and snapped it down on the counter. As he did this, he continued to speak to Chambers, now right behind him. “However, Mr. Chambers, if you want to renew your training after I’ve completed my meeting, I’d be glad to oblige you.”
He turned around and looked directly into Chambers’ eyes. Thorn’s gaze would have made a rattlesnake look friendly. “I have no interest in wasting a moment of my short time left on this earth dealing with you in any way—even if putting you down like the mangy yellow dog you truly are would be a public service to the good people of Harshaw. The fact is, Buck or whatever your name was before they put it on a Wanted poster, you’re just not worth the time nor the effort. As little as they both would be.”
Chambers’ face was a frozen mask and had gone from red to a deep crimson that no one who witnessed it could remember ever seeing on a man’s face before. His right hand was hovering over his gun—quivering as he fought not to be the man who drew first.
“You think you can ignore me, Thorn?”
“In fact, you worthless backstabbing waste of God’s gift of life, that is precisely what I intend to do.” With a final look of contempt, John Thorn walked right past Chambers and headed for the door.
Chambers turned slowly, the malice clear on his face. “This is the last time I will be ignored by you, Thorn. Turn around!” Chambers was shouting at the top of his voice in sheer frustration.
“Turn around and face me or I shoot you where you stand!”
Thorn was only a step from the door when he stopped and stood still. Carefully, he pulled his coat away from the shiny Colt .45 holstered at his side.
Suddenly Chambers felt cold steel at his temple. The calm voice of sheriff Bob “Dead Eye” Jones came from his right side. “Now, Buck. I really do think that it would be a terrible mistake for you to keep John Thorn from his meeting. I mean to say, you will regret it. Not for more than a second or two but you will definitely regret it. That old Walker of yours is so damn heavy, you’ll still be hauling it from leather when the first .45 from John’s gun hits you between the eyes.”
Chambers could heard the sound of the hammer on the sheriff’s Smith & Wesson Model 2 .32 going back and even the ratcheting as the chamber turned to ready a new cartridge. They were sounds that were particularly bloodcurdling when heard from only 6 inches away.
“Now, could you enlighten me as to just what the hell you think you’re doing, Buck Chambers?” The sheriff pushed the muzzle of his gun a little deeper into the temple just to be sure he had the man’s complete attention. “Didn’t I tell you just yesterday to stop making trouble in my town? And didn’t I say you’d spend a couple of nights in jail if you had dust in your ears and misunderstood what I was saying?”
“Chambers was trying to pick a fight.” Harry Toms shouted from the dining room. “Same as always.”
“Sheriff, this don’t concern you,” Chambers snapped. “It’d be best if you just went about your business. But you can send the undertaker down, I think Mr. Thorn will be ready for measuring shortly.”
The sheriff pressed his gun even harder into Chambers’ head. “Good Lord.” he thought, “What’s this man’s skull made of—solid granite?”
Shaking his head at the thought, the sheriff continued. “The only one going to the undertaker will be you, Chambers, if you don’t back off. Now, I think it’s time for you, John Thorn, to go on about your business and for you, Buck Chambers, to drop your money on the counter and get on about yours.”
The sheriff stepped back and took a firmer stance that would take the recoil of the big cartridge. “Honestly, Buck, Can’t you see that I just saved your life? Thorn would a killed you sure as I’m standing here.”
Chambers looked at the sheriff, and then over at his two “friends” who were still seated and being very careful to keep their hands in plain sight on top of the table and filled with knives and forks instead of six-shooters. Slowly, he realized that he didn’t hold any aces in this hand and the two he thought he had up his sleeve weren’t about to jump in.
After a couple of deep breaths, Chambers took a step back and twisted just enough to throw a small coin on the counter. “This ain’t over Thorn. I will have my satisfaction.” Chambers snarled menacingly as he turned quickly around and walked out the back door.
“You better get a move on to Victorville.” The sheriff called after Chambers. Then he stepped up to stand beside Thorn and gazed out at the street.
“John, you have to stop antagonizing him. You know he’s spoilin’ for a fight.”
Thorn just snorted and nodded his head.
Harry Toms came up on the other side. “Chambers is a hateful man, sheriff. Born with a chip on his shoulder and cactus spur in his ass, you ask me.”
“Be that as it may, I’d hate to have kept the peace all this time and end up with a ruckus that would spoil your last day in town, John.”
“Sheriff Jones, Chambers started it. He starts it every time and you know it. When are you gonna make good on all your promises and just run him out of town?” Harry said loudly.
The sheriff replied calmly. “He was just trying to push it a bit is all because he knows it’s his last chance. John’s way too smart for him and won’t take the bait. Besides if there is any shooting, Chambers is the one who is going to need the undertaker.”
“Going to need one damn big coffin.” John said so softly that only the sheriff heard him. Jones coughed with laughter and John gave him a raised eyebrow as he stepped through the door and onto the raised wooden walkway.