Several years ago I wrote this short story, with the idea of shopping it around to publishers. I was unsuccessful at that, so here it is, for your enjoyment. If you like what you read, I’ve also written two books.
Michael “One Bullet” Brandt licked his parched lips and scanned the street that stretched before him. His mind was made up—he knew what he had to do. And he was determined to follow through, even when every fiber of his being screamed at him to walk away.
Main Street of Ore City was also the only street. It had once been a cow trail—until people thought it would make a nice place to stop and put down roots. Wooden buildings of varying heights lined either side of the dirty avenue. A rough-hewn boardwalk provided pedestrians with a the option of not ruining the shine of their shoes in the dust.
Michael’s well-worn boots were well beyond the point of caring.
He stood at the northern extremity of Main Street and watched the townspeople bustle about their daily tasks. Ranchers and cattle-hands went in and out of the supply store to Michael’s left. On the boardwalk two old men played checkers.
It really didn’t matter. All seemed blissfully unaware that something important was about to happen.
A short distance away a drunken cowpoke reeled out of the Last Stop Saloon. Michael knew him…name of Reggie Sloan. When he was sober Reggie could quote Shakespeare and discuss Aristotle with the best of them.
Trouble was, Reggie was seldom sober.
Michael watched as Reggie took a few tentative steps, then pitched headlong into a water trough. He came up sputtering and shook out his soaked hat. Then he stood up in the trough, raised his leg to take a step, and promptly fell face-first into the dirt.
And there he stayed.
Michael smiled grimly and continued to survey the town. On his right the stagecoach had stopped in front of the Wells Fargo station. Well-heeled patrons were boarding—most likely bound for Dodge, or some other “high-falutin’” place.
Beyond the Wells Fargo stood the Grand Hotel. Jim MacGregor—a Scottish investor who had come west looking for opportunity—had high hopes for Ore City, and he built his hotel to match them. It was a two-story affair done in an ante-bellum—almost neo-classical—style. Six white pillars stood like immovable sentries, guarding the expansive entryway with its double doors and large glass windows.
The hotel…that’s where the showdown would happen.
Michael swallowed hard and set his jaw. He knew he had to do this—come what may. Yet never in his life had he felt such raw fear as he did at this moment. And Michael Brandt was not a fearful man.
* * *
Born into the hardscrabble life of the Missouri Ozarks, Michael’s only memory of his mother was of the faded hand-drawn portrait enshrined in the little cabin where he grew up. She died giving him birth. His father was a proud man and refused to ask for help in raising his boy. He survived mostly by hunting and fishing in the game-filled forests. Young Michael was shooting squirrels almost as soon as he was old enough to walk.
Father and son were managing to eek out a living when the Civil War broke out. Late one evening their little cabin was raided by a group of renegades loosely affiliated with the Confederate army.
On that terrible night, as his dad was firing through a chink in the wall of their cabin in a vain attempt to save their meager possessions, he stopped long enough to hand his fifteen-year-old son a pistol, a bag of bullets, and the carefully-wrapped picture of his mother. Then he told the boy to run and hide in the woods and return in the morning, when everything would be alright.
Michael returned in the morning, but everything was not alright. The cabin was a charred ruin. In the ashes he found the carbonized remains of his father’s body. With tears streaking down his face he carried enough stones from the creek-bed to build a small mound over the burned corpse. Then he dried his eyes, checked his pistol, patted the picture of his mother—still safely ensconced under his shirt–and disappeared into the forest.
Two nights later the the same rogue Confederate party was encamped at a clearing, its members sitting around campfires, drinking and singing. Suddenly a shot echoed through the trees. A bullet kicked up dirt in the middle of the camp. The men reached for their weapons, but it was too late. Three more shots rang out, and three men fell, each with a hole in his heart. The others began to shoot desperately into the blackness, but to no avail. One by one they dropped as Michael shot them with a precision honed by years of squirrel hunting. When the firing stopped, twenty-three men lay dead on the ground.
Only five escaped to tell the tale.
Michael stepped into the clearing and calmly surveyed the scene. He picked up a rifle and a couple pistols, then emptied the contents of several jugs of rum around the camp. He chose the finest horse from the ones tethered to surrounding trees and cut the others loose. Then, grabbing a burning log from one of the fires, he threw it to the middle of the clearing, then swung into the .saddle. As he rode into the night a blazing inferno erupted behind him.
He didn’t look back.
Over the next few months the five men who had escaped Michael’s onslaught each met an untimely end. Then Michael, with nothing more to keep him in the Ozarks, drifted west. He found employment in a series of cattle drives, where he quickly earned a reputation as a hard worker and loyal fighter.
On his very first drive he went after some stray cattle and found a group of six rustlers leading them away. He called out to the bandits, and they reached for their pistols, sneering at the skinny kid in front of them. Twenty minutes later Michael rode back into camp driving the errant cattle and leading six horses—sans rustlers.
When the range boss asked him if he needed any more bullets, Michael replied “Just six.”
This and countless other exploits earned Michael the nickname “One-Bullet Brandt”. Rustlers learned to keep their distance when One-Bullet was known to be present. After a few years of drifting he accepted an offer from Frank Rigley, owner of the the Diamond R ranch, located just west of Ore City. He kept mostly to himself, but did manage to make a few friends in town. One of these friends was Reggie. Another was Tom Wright, the town sheriff. Sheriff Wright knew opportunity when he saw it and made Michael an official deputy—thus drastically reducing violent crime in the city overnight.
* * *
Michael was in front of the Sheriff’s office now. He turned to gaze at his reflection in the large window. A tall, wiry man dressed in a plaid shirt and denim pants gazed back at him. He pushed his hat back on his head, revealing a shock of unruly brown hair. He was twenty-three, but his boyish, freckled face made people assume he was at least five years younger. His ears were a little too big for his head, not that anybody ever mentioned that to his face. His lanky frame never caused anybody to take a second look.
Only his cool blue eyes betrayed the iron will he possessed.
Self-consciously Michael straightened out his kerchief, and his hand felt the outline of the leather pouch under his shirt—the pouch in which he still carried the picture of his mother. Scowling in displeasure at his own appearance he pulled his hat back down over his eyes and turned to go.
“Hey Mike! What brings you to town?” It was Sheriff Wright, emerging from the office.
“Got sumthin’ I need to take care of.”
“Need any help?”
“Alrighty then. Don’t get into any trouble.”
Michael didn’t reply, but began to walk slowly, deliberately down the dusty street. The sheriff watched him go, then went back into the office. Whatever it was, he thought, One-Bullet was more than up to it. In fact, now that his deputy was in town he might just go home early to spend some time with the kids.
Michael did not feel nearly as confident as the sheriff. With every step he took his heart beat harder. The man who had faced down the most dangerous outlaws in the West without blinking now broke out into a cold sweat. As he walked he struggled valiantly to control his breathing and keep his heart from pounding out of control.
“Hey One-Bullet!” It was Reggie, who was sitting up now. “You look like death warmed over.”
“You don’t look so hot yourself, Reg.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about!” declared Reggie in a loud voice. “I’ve never felt bet…” and then he fell back into the dirt.
Michael shook his head to clear it. He was even with the Wells Fargo now, and the next building was the Grand Hotel. The exchange with Reggie made people notice him, and they were giving him a wide berth. Instinctively his hands felt for the pistols at his waist. The ebony handles were smooth and well-worn.
The feel of his weapons always gave Michael a certain sense of security.
Right now they felt like a dead weight at his side.
All too soon Michael found himself standing in front of the Grand Hotel. The large double doors seemed to mock him. He wondered how many people were inside. How many would witness what was to follow? Desperately he fought to remove these thoughts from his head. He gritted his teeth, set his jaw, and walked to the door. As he reached for the knob the door suddenly opened and a young couple—easterners, from the look of them—came out. They gave him a once-over, as if he were a circus attraction, then stepped around him and onto the street.
Michael was sure he heard them giggling, and his large ears burned. Resolutely he stepped through the door and heard it close behind him.
His heart racing, he scanned the opulent lobby. This room represented a completely different world from the dusty street on the other side of the double doors. Outside was the Wild West; inside, civilization. In the posh dining area well-dressed travelers conversed in low tones over cool beverages.
A large portrait on the wall depicted some European battle where the heroes were evidently Scottish. He looked at each table, hoping—and at the same time dreading—to see his quarry.
Michael turned to the right where, at a high mahogany balcony, two businessmen in top hats and coats with long tails were checking in.
It was all Michael could do not to turn and run. The man who was afraid of nothing was now scared down to the very soles of his feet. Steeling himself with every ounce of willpower he possessed he stepped forward.
At the counter eighteen-year-old Ellen MacGregor—the only daughter of the hotel’s owner and it’s official hostess—was checking in two guests from St. Louis when she noticed Michael Brandt striding purposefully toward her. As he approached she turned to look at him, her large blue eyes open wide, her beautiful red lips forming a pleasant smile. Unconsciously she removed a wisp of golden hair that had fallen in front of her pretty face.
“May I help you?”
Michael “One-Bullet” Brandt opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He opened his mouth again, then closed it. Then he remembered he was still wearing his hat. Flustered he swept it off of his head and held it with both hands over his chest. Finally he spoke.
“Miss Ellen…I…” he cleared his throat. “May I have the honor of your company at the town picnic?”
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