Summary: What if the final gunfight that killed Ed Payson took a different turn and set the main players on different paths? A WHI for Broken Ballad.
Rating: T, Word Count: 2676
Broken Ballad – The Last Gunfight
When a man takes a gun in his hand
He becomes like a scourge on the land
Whether wrong, whether right
He e’en knows that he must fight
Soon will die, everyone, by the gun.
When he’s young he’s as cool as a stream
And he draws like a man in a dream
Face him down if you dare
With a curse or a prayer
You will die, mother’s son, by the gun.
Though his name may strike fear where he goes
He’s a stranger that nobody knows
Call him out, make your play
Here it comes, Judgement Day
As you die, in the sun, by the gun.
When a man takes a gun in his hand
He becomes like a scourge on the land
For they end as they must
Lying dead in the dust
Everyone who would live by the gun.*
I’d just finished buckling my gunbelt when Pa grabbed my arm and spun me around. His eyes were black as coal and full of fear.
“You cannot do this, Adam. He’s not after you.”
I shoved down my temper, despite my desire to hotly debate this with him. “Isn’t he? I’m the one who shot him and yet it didn’t stop him. He’s out to clean up all the loose ends.” I took a deep breath and calmed my rising voice. “Please try to understand, Pa, I have no choice. It’s now or never. He’s left a trail of death and must be stopped. It’s what I signed up to do and it has to end here”
I exchanged looks with each of my brothers who’d come to stand behind Pa, then my eyes settled back on Pa. I knew he would never accept what I chose to do but his slight nod at least confirmed that he understood the why of it. That brought an amount of comfort as I slid my hat on and left the house. “I should be home by tonight.”
That was early this morning and a lifetime ago. Now here I sit, staring at nothing, oblivious to the sun setting over the mountains. The night was falling hard at the empty cabin and it was getting colder by the minute, but I was numb to it. I couldn’t even feel the rickety porch beneath me, and certainly, there was nothing inside of me.
I’m not really sure why I came here after the events of this morning; I should have just ridden home. As I walked my horse into the yard, it shocked me to see the condition of the cabin. The structure had returned to the dilapidated condition it was in when Ed Payson first returned. All the work we’d done to make it livable, now gone. Well, it has been more than a year since I’ve been out here.
Getting off Sport was no small task with my injured arm and now it’s really hurting. Guess I should have let Paul have a look, but all I wanted was to leave the madness behind. Can’t believe I’ve been here all afternoon, but I can’t make myself leave. I’ve too many memories, too many regrets to try to move on. A deep shiver just ran through me making me wish I had my jacket but I’ve no strength left to move.
The sound of a lone rider coming in brought me back to my senses. I raised my head to see who it might be and couldn’t help the smirk when I recognized the silhouette. It figured. I know they’re all worried about me.
He dismounted and dropped his large frame down beside me making the rotting porch shake and creak.
“I went lookin’ for ya in town an’ saw Roy. He told me what happened. Paul also gave me some stuff to patch you up if you like. How’s your arm?”
I raised a finger to quiet my brother. “Don’t say it, Hoss. I’ve heard it enough times in my head. There wasn’t anything I could have done differently. I couldn’t have stopped Billy either of those times. It’s not my fault. It’s just what happened.”
“So, do you believe any of that?”
I angled my head to glare at him. Damn, he’s good. Just cut to the chase.
I sighed again and propped my chin on my good hand. “I don’t know. I guess I do. It’s just hard to let it all go.”
After sitting beside his mute brother for several minutes, Hoss took the cue and went to tend to the horses. He returned with my jacket, laying it across my back. He also lit a lantern he’d found and reached over to patch up my arm. His gentle ministrations belied his big hands as he cleaned my arm. Knowing his work was causing me a lot of pain he offered a distraction. “Wanna tell me ‘bout it?”
I rolled my eyes to look at him again. What was it about this big guy that made it seem like he was the big brother?
“Hell, why not?” I shifted to get more comfortable, cradling my now bandaged arm in my lap. If Hoss heard the hiss of air that escaped my lips he didn’t let on. I stared off into the darkness, watching the ghostly figures take up their places in the yard…
You pretty much know what happened here. The growing anger between Billy Buckley and Ed Payson came to a head that night. It didn’t take long for Billy to push the confrontation right there, not five feet from us.
I did my best to talk them both down but Billy had blood in his eyes and Ed had finally given up on a peaceful life. Mentally I blamed Will Cass for spreading his poison over both of them and I said so. But Ed denied it.
“No Adam,” Ed responded in his slow drawl, “it’s not about Cass, is it Billy? It’s about Sally.”
Billy, keeping his eyes on Ed, barely nodded his agreement.
“You see Adam, I have to fight. It’s him or me, kill or be killed.”
“No Ed, you’re wrong. You don’t need to fight him. You’ve got Sally already.”
“Adam, if it’s not Billy, it’ll be someone else.” Ed raised his chin. “I have to fight him.”
Pleased at how things were progressing, Billy tossed Ed the gun he’d brought from town. Ed strapped the belt around his hips and checked the pistol.
Just as the two men squared off, Sally drove her buggy wildly into the yard. She cried out as she jumped from the rig running between Ed and Billy.
I was too far away to stop her so I yelled out, “No Sally! Get back!”
With tears streaming down her cheeks, Sally pleaded for them to stop. “Why can’t you just leave Ed in peace, Billy?” She backed up toward Ed trying to protect him. “Go home, please! I don’t love you, Billy. It’s Ed that I want, not you!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Ed inching toward Sally but I also saw Billy’s eyes squint.
Startled into action Ed dove for Sally just as I bent low, drew my gun, and fired. Billy fell backward when my bullet burned through his lower right arm. The boy’s gun never cleared leather.
Screaming and shaking Sally clung to Ed as he rose from the ground and pulled her into his arms. With my pistol leveled at Billy’s chest, I edged toward him. Seeing the boy grabbing at his right arm with his left hand as blood spurted through his fingers, I quickly removed Billy’s gun from the holster and tossed it away, then slammed my own gun into its holster.
The bullet had gone through but a bone was protruding so I worked to straighten it as best I could and wrapped the arm tight with his scarf to slow the bleeding.
“Don’t think you’ll be using that arm for a long time boy, if ever again.”
Anger and hatred filled Billy’s eyes at those words. “You’re gonna pay, Adam. You ruined everything.” He looked over my shoulder toward Ed and Sally.
As I wiped down my hands with my bandana, I followed his gaze. Sally had calmed down and the two were sitting silently on the porch step staring numbly into the night.
“You’ve lost her, Billy. Just let them be.”
Still smoldering, Billy sank into himself as he sat on the ground. I knew he hadn’t heard a word I said.
After I shot Billy in the arm to keep him from killing Ed, I thought, no I hoped, that everyone’s lives would go back to some semblance of order. Maybe Ed would finally get the peaceful life he sought, and Billy’s gunfighting days were over before they’d even begun. A year later I was proven wrong about everything related to Ed and Billy.
I was heading home from Fort Churchill with some wranglers after delivering a herd of horses when we came across a man who’d been shot in the back. His beard and long hair couldn’t hide his identity from me.
“Dear God, Billy!”
Finding him barely alive, I removed the bullet, then we got him to Dayton. I sent the wranglers home and stayed with Billy until he recovered. That’s when I learned an awful truth.
One day after he’d recovered I found him practicing his left-handed shooting, his right arm hanging uselessly by his side as I’d predicted that night at Ed’s cabin. That’s when he told me he was no longer Billy Buckley, but Ringo, the deadly gunslinger I’d been hearing about. My worst fears had been realized and I went cold inside. He had taken to living by the gun, and no amount of my talking would turn him around.
That night he disappeared. I wanted to go after him but I reluctantly headed home. However, I followed his bloody trail through news reports and saloon stories. Sadness for a life wasted and guilt for not being able to stop him the two times I had the chance made me join a Marshal’s posse to hunt him down, to stop him with words or a gun. After trailing him from town to town, I began to see a pattern. I was pretty sure he was heading back to where it all began to settle one final score. I headed home to await his return.
This morning was unusually quiet and the saloon that Ed and I favorited was nearly empty. Rumors said Ringo was in the area so I waited, nursing a mug of beer, well more holding it than drinking from it. Memories from a year ago, the last few weeks, and Pa’s final words fought each other in my thoughts. I pushed them down, determined to be ready when he arrived. However, hearing him call me out still made my blood run cold. I knew my draw was fast but would it match the lightning draw of Ringo?
In the empty street we squared off. A hot breeze burned my sweaty neck and whipped Billy’s long hair around his hat.
“Where are Ed and Sally?”
“I don’t know. They left without a trace one night after you tried to kill Ed.”
He stiffened then dropped his shoulders down.
As I slowed my breathing, the sun glinted off my badge and my hand hovered near my gun. I locked eyes with him. “Billy, it’s time all this ended. Drop your gun now.”
He barely flexed his left hand as my words fell to the dirt.
“Billy’s dead! I’m Ringo now! Besides, I owe you!”
Before I could process what he owed me, I saw his eyes change to narrow slits. We both crouched and drew together. I felt the sting in my wrist making my gun fire wide. His smile was sinister as he spoke, “Now we’re even, Adam.”
I grasped my bleeding arm as a flicker of hope filled me that he might still have some good in him. That hope died as he straightened his body and took aim at my chest. A loud report split the air and Ringo fell forward. His body made a muffled thud in the hot, dry dirt, and a red stain blossomed across his back. A few feet behind him I spied the angry face of a bent and broken Will Cass as the shotgun fell from his hands.
There would be no court, no funeral. Only cheers for the death of Ringo. Amid the noise I barely heard Cass’ forlorned words, “He failed to kill Ed. I’ve lost my Sally. I’ve lost it all.”
Suddenly everything came rushing at me and I had to get out of there. So many lives ruined and all the crowd could do was cheer. After managing a makeshift bandage on my arm, I climbed into the saddle and raced out of town. There was only one place I could think of going.
The last words of my story drifted away and silence filled the night air. Hoss fiddled with a chunk of wood, and I fingered the badge resting on my hand.
“So I came here, where it all began. Somehow hoping I could leave it all here, and move on.”
“Maybe this will help.” Hoss slipped an envelope from his vest, opened it, and held the letter out for me to take.
After reading it twice I looked at my brother. “Where did you see him?”
“When I was in Stockton. They ain’t livin’ there, just buyin’ some horses. Ed asked me to give you that letter. Reckon he needs to be told ‘bout Billy and Cass.”
“Yeah.” I gazed up at the moonless sky. “Are they happy?”
“He said so. Also said he won’t come back here but you can go visit if you like. I can tell ya how to find ‘em.”
Knowing I was all talked out, Hoss rose and rubbed at a kink in his back. “You comin’ home?”
I stared at the letter, sighed again, and slowly rose to my feet, the movement making my arm hurt something fierce. As I tried to get my stiff body to straighten out, a strong arm stretched across my shoulders to steady me. Meeting his worried eyes with my tired ones, I gave him a weak smile. It was enough to get him to smile too.
With his support, we walked to our horses. I handed the letter back to him and he helped me into the saddle. Side by side we made our way home. Refusing to look back at the cabin, I straightened in my saddle. Each step our horses took moved me further away from all the pain that led to that final shootout. I felt my brother’s eyes on me so I turned to give him what I hoped was a reassuring look. He gave me a wink and we pressed onward. Once again I found myself grateful for my middle brother.
Days later, I left Paul’s office after a check on my healing arm and headed to Roy’s office to turn in my badge. On my way out of town I sought out two lonely graves to offer a moment of silence for a forgotten kid and a broken old man; regret ran deep for what they’d become. Turning my back on the graves and the past, I left the ghosts where they belonged. It was time to move on, time to shake off the past year and look forward to wherever the road may lead. For now, that road leads home, and I’m perfectly fine with that.
A/N – Song “Gunfighter’s Lament” from the episode Broken Ballad.
A portion of this story was inspired by the song “Ringo”, performed by Lorne Greene.
Other Stories by this Author
- Missy (by AC1830)
- A Christmas Journey (by AC1830)
- Shadows of Friendship (by AC1830)
- The Long Night (by AC1830)
- A Brother Lost (by AC1830)