A KILLING ON CHRISTMAS DAY

Everybody in Frisco, Utah knew Bill Thomas.  He had arrived in town in 1879 to help Sly Smith the dairyman with his small herd.  Of course, nobody really knew much about Bill’s past, but that was common for most of the people in town.  He worked hard and quietly to take care of his wife and small family.

           It would be Christmas day, 1880, in a few hours, but now it was still black outside and the north wind blew bitter cold down from the San Francisco Mountain range.  There were a few stragglers in the Lawrence Saloon when Bill walked in as was his custom every morning.  Curby, a gambler, sat alone at one table. A group of early-riser stood around the stock in one corner.  Without a word, Pete Lawrence poured a shot of whiskey into a glass.  It was a common routine during the winter months.

 “Them cows are jist waiting fer the feel of my warm hands.”  Bill smiled at Pete.  The bartender laughed, and the stragglers around the pot-bellied stove laughed too.  But Curby didn’t laugh. 

            “Hey, cow-kicker!  What’s the idea of trackin’ cow manure in here?”

            Bill stopped sipping.  He turned slowly to face the gambler.  “I don’t see nothin’.”

            “Well, I do, and I want it cleaned up.”

            “Then you clean it up.”  Bill’s words were flat, without threat. He turned back to his glass again, but watched the gambler in the mirror behind the bar. He lifted the glass of booze with his left hand, but with his right, under his duster he slowly reached across and drew his .44 from it’s holster on his left hip under his duster, cocked it quietly, but held it hidden.

            The gambler sprang to his feet, knocking his chair over on the floor, and drew a derringer from his belt, but before he could fire he saw Pete Lawrence standing at the end of the bar with a sawed-off shotgun aimed at Curby’s stomach.

“All right, Curby that’s enough.  Curby, you pull that trigger and I’ll blow you in half.”  Pete said. Curby glanced from Lawrence to the cowboy slowly sipping at his drink. The cowhand hadn’t moved, but glanced into the mirror to see Curby’s pale face in the reflection. The .44 was also facing Curby out the back of his duster.

           It took only a second for the gambler to read his cards. He couldn’t beat a pair of barrels that Lawrence held. “I’ll see you later, cowboy.”  Curby backed up and slipped out the door. For a moment he stood on the wooden porch with his head down. When he looked up he could see the faint glow of a lantern across the street in Pat Malloy’s Saloon.  He stumbled across the frozen wagon ruts in the street, pushed aside the Indian blanket stretched across the swinging doors of the Irishman’s place, and walked into the dim interior. 

Pat had just opened up the place. The fire in the pot-bellied stove at the end of his bar glowed with a new fire, but the room was still cold as death and just as dark.  Curby pulled back the blanket over a peg Pat had nailed on the door frame. He found a table where he could look over Pat’s swinging doors to the front of the Lawrence’s Saloon.  He demanded a bottle and sat brooding over his humiliation. 

“Hey, I’m trying to warm the place up a little.” Pat called out. “Not all of Main Street!”

“I ain’t cold! Leave it be!” The gambler snared.

Thomas’ horse was tied to the rail in front of Pat’s place.  The cowboy would have to cross the street when he came out, and the gambler had plans. 

            “Curby had a bad night at the table.”  Pete was wiping down the bar.  Thomas had replaced the .44 and finished his drink.  “Watch out for him.”  Pete offered.

            Bill twirled the empty glass in his hands.  “I could have handled him.”  He said quietly. The sight of Thomas standing before him was not the same cow-milker Pete had come to know. He had always seemed an enigma in this silver-mining town. Pete had only seen him when he dropped by every morning on his way to work. Now in the biting cold of winter, he was even odder — in addition to the ragged duster he wore, Bill tied a scarf over his hat and under his chin. This caused the brim of his cowboy had to bend down over his ears. As he turned to leave, the room full of hangers-on could hear the clomping of his gum boots on the planked floor. Pete hadn’t seen Bill like this before, the cowboy showed not a ruffle of fear. He was much more steel-steady now — so unfazed by the gambler’s threats.     

            Thomas stepped from the Lawrence Saloon and walked across Frisco’s Main Street to his horse.  Curby saw him coming and stepped out on Malloy’s porch hold his diringer. Bill didn’t see the gambler, untied his horse from the hitching rail, and prepared to mount.

“Where’s Pete now, cowboy?  You’re a yellow bellied coward, hiding behind someone else’s gun!!”

            Thomas left his horse standing, backed a few steps to the street, and opened his duster to reveal the .44 in a holster at his belt.  Curby gazed at the figure, poised like a gunfighter with feet spread apart.  The cold morning wind blew across the gambler’s wet forehead.

            “It’s yer move, Curby.”  Bill said softly.

            A small crowd had gathered up Main Street.  Pete had come out and was standing on the porch with his shotgun at his shoulder.  He cocked both barrels.

           Bill didn’t move when he heard the door open at Pete’s saloon.

“Put the gun down Pete, I’ll handle this.”  Bill didn’t move.  Pete looked at Curby holding his gun, and Bill poised in the street, then he slowly backed into his bar, watching through the doorway with his cocked shotgun by his side, and finger above the trigger.

            Curby paused for a moment, then turned and swung Pat’s doors wide inward.  As the doors swung back he turned, and fired a single barrel at Thomas, wounding him in the right shoulder. 

Thomas drew with his left hand, and as the doors swung inward, fired two shots striking Curby in the nose and above the right eye.  The doors came to rest, Curby’s head pitched backward, then his body fell forward through the doors and sprawled across the porch.

Pete ejected the shells from his 12-guage as Thomas mounted his horse and rode up the quiet Main Street toward home.

So, Christmas, 1880, began in Frisco, Utah.

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