Henry Collins stared hard at the man standing twenty feet away whose hands were splayed over the big Colt that hung at his hip. Somewhere a door slammed, but he barely heard it, as he concentrated on the burly gunman who now faced him in the middle of the dusty Texas street.
Collins licked his suddenly dry lips. He was no gun fighter, but nevertheless here he was standing in the middle of the street getting ready for a gun fight.
The big man took a step towards him and his hand dipped to the Colt on his hip and came up spouting fire. Collins was amazed at the speed the other man got his pistol into action. He was even more amazed at seeing a crimson stain spread across the big man's chest. He had beaten the man to the draw! Collins side-stepped to his right and fired another shot. The big man fell to his knees with a look of shock on his face as he tried desperately to bring his heavy pistol to bear on Collins. Henry Collins snapped one more shot at the man. The .45 slug caught him in the throat and flipped him over to lay still on the dusty street.
"Did you see that? He just kilt Dutch Adams!" a voice rang out from the crowd watching from the boardwalk.
"Of course he did. That's Jack McEwin, the Cactus Kid! I'd know him anywhere." Another man said.
Henry felt a little shaky as the group of men were now walking towards him.
He holstered his pistol just as the first man got to him and grabbed his hand and pumped it up and down. "Glad to meet you Mister McEwin, or can I call you Kid?" A man wearing a vest and gold watch chain said excitedly.
The rest of the men started clamoring around him. "I knew all along you could beat Adams," said another.
"How long you in town for, Kid?" another asked.
Henry's head was still spinning from the shoot-out and it took him a moment to realize that the crowd had mistaken him for the famous gunfighter Jack McEwin or, as he was better known, The Cactus Kid.
The Cactus Kid was a gunfighter from the Uvalde area. He was that rare breed of gunman, where little was known about him as he rarely stayed in one spot very long. McEwin wasn't a glory seeker or trouble maker. Many times he tried sidestepping fights, but had too often been forced to draw against some would-be bad man who was looking for a reputation. Usually after beating his adversary, he would quietly leave town with no word to anyone. Because of that, most people weren't even sure what he looked like.
Collins shook the man's hand and turned to leave, when someone called out. "Come to the saloon, Mister McEwin, and I'll buy ya a drink."
Suddenly others started clamoring that they would buy him a drink as well. Before he knew it, Collins was being swept away by the crowd towards the saloon.
The doors slammed open as the crowd surged through. "Jim," the man with the vest hollered at the bartender. "Set us up a round, willya? I'm buying a drink for my new friend, Jack McEwin."
Collins smiled to himself as he thought it wouldn't hurt to let them think he was the Cactus Kid for a minute. He certainly wasn't going to turn down free drinks.
He tossed down the drink that was handed to him and before he could say anything, another glass was stuck in his hand. This from a slight man with a huge walrus mustache. "Mister McEwin, ya shore did the town a good turn today. That Dutch Adams was a bad character, and had the womenfolk scared to go out by themselves."
Collins, sipped his second drink and asked. "Why didn't yore sheriff take care of him?"
"Adams done kilt him last week." A man in the back volunteered. "Yes sir, Dutch Adams was a bad one. But he was no match for you, Kid."
The mustachioed man cleared his throat. "Mister McEwin, my name is Ezra Jackson, the mayor of this burg, and I have a favor to ask, if I might."
Collins nodded his head as he was handed another drink from a man at his elbow.
"Would you be willing to be the town Sheriff, just until we find another one?"
The offer surprised Collins. He had never been a lawman and in fact operated outside the law when it suited him. He was a drifter, a cheat, and a petty thief. Until ten minutes ago he had never been in a gunfight with another man facing him.
He took a moment to survey the crowd that was looking at him expectantly, and then thought of how he could cash in on their mistake and his good fortune.
He downed his fourth drink and nodded. "Yep, I'll do it, but just 'til you hire another one."
The men around him cheered and clapped him on his back. "Thank you Kid. This will be the safest town west of the Pecos, with you as sheriff."
"You won't regret it," said another man.
Henry Collins smiled to himself as he thought, Nope, I sure won't.
* * *
Henry Collins sat on the porch of the hotel thinking what a sweet deal he had fallen into. Here he was, being celebrated by the townfolk. He never paid for a drink, meals, or even the best room in the hotel. He had even gone upstairs at the local bordello, and had sampled the 'wares' of several of the ladies, and simply walked out and told the madam, "put it on my tab."
He'd been making quite a bit of money for the last three weeks.
Collins had quietly gone to several business owners and asked for 'expense' money. At first most were happy to help the famous Cactus Kid. But, when he had returned on more than one occasion with his hand out, it started to wear thin with many of the owners.
In the back of his mind, Collins knew he might have to leave eventually, before someone got wise, but he was having too good a time to think of that now. He figured he'd give it one more week, make a quick score and then leave, before anyone was wiser of his true identity.
A week later, he killed his second man. A would-be bank robber had come out of the First Texas Bank with a sack of loot in his hand. Collins hadn't even given him a chance to surrender when he cut him down from behind as the robber had reached for his horse. Collins had scooped up the fallen sack. Several packets of greenbacks had fallen on the ground. He had reached down and pocketed the wads of cash, before taking the sack back inside and giving it to the bank teller.
* * *
Austin James was the local blacksmith. Working over a hot forge hammering out steel gave him plenty of time to think. He was thinking now. It had been three weeks since the killing of Dutch Adams by the Cactus Kid. Three weeks, and the Cactus Kid was still working as the temporary Sheriff. Granted, Mayor Jackson hadn't made any serious attempts at finding a replacement, but James had always heard that McEwin never stayed in one spot too long. He was curious as to why the change this time.
He stood up to wipe the sweat from his brow, when his sister, Marisa, walked in holding his lunch basket.
Marisa, who was three years younger than Austin's twenty-six, was single and still lived with her brother at their childhood home, left to them when their father had passed a couple years ago. Their mother had died of Cholera on their way west when Marisa was just a child. Even at the tender age of eleven, she had taken on the responsibilities of the woman of the house and taken care of her father and brother. In her mind, it was up to them to put a roof over their heads and food on the table and it was her job to make sure that their efforts weren't in vain. She knew her brother worried about her not marrying, not that she hadn't had plenty of suitors. She also knew that the townfolk thought of her as a man-hater who would die as a single old maid someday. She let neither of those things bother her. She knew when she met the right man, she would know.
She set down the basket and looked at her brother. She could see worry etched across his face.
"What's wrong, Austin?"
He shook his shaggy head. "Mebbe nothin', but I'm just thinking about our new 'sheriff.'"
Marisa had her own ideas about the Cactus Kid, but kept them to herself as she listened to her brother's thoughts on the matter.
"I can't put my finger on it, but it seems contrary from all we've heard about The Cactus Kid, staying on so long after killing Adams."
Marisa nodded, as she had been thinking the same thing. She had always thought of the Cactus Kid as being somewhat older and gallant. The new sheriff was anything but, as far as she could see.
She had watched the man saunter about town with a cockiness and arrogance she found repugnant.
As she continued to listen to her brother talk while they shared a lunch of fried chicken, her mind kept going back to their new sheriff. Much like her brother, she too thought it strange that McEwin would still be around after the gunfight with Dutch Adams.
A week or so ago she had witnessed first-hand McEwin asking for a hand out from Mr. Forrest, who owned the hardware store. It had struck her as strange that a gunman of McEwin's repute would put his hand out for charity, but she had decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he had rid the town of Dutch Adams, who was a notorious bad man who had made it hard for decent folk to walk the town in broad daylight. Still, there was something she didn't like about the town's new 'savior.'
Then, Marisa had bumped into him the other day as he was coming out of the mercantile store. He had grabbed her to keep her from falling. She still shivered at the memory of him boldly undressing her with his eyes. The next day, she had caught him following her as she brought her brother lunch. He had openly winked at her, and rubbed himself 'down there' suggestively. She had hurried on to her brother's shop. She had said nothing of what had transpired either time to him, fearing that Austin would look up the man and there would be trouble.
She sighed to herself and could only hope that Mayor Jackson found a replacement soon.
* * *
Marisa James was coming out of the door of the dress shop trying to balance a pile of packages and navigate the steps down into the street where her buckboard was hitched. Just as she reached the ground, the top package shifted and fell to the ground, bursting open and spilling out the material she had just bought to make herself some new dresses.
She sighed as she knelt to pick up her belongings when a pair of polished cowboy boots stopped in front of her. She lifted her eyes to see a handsome man, with sun-tanned face and piercing blue eyes, kneel down to help her.
He smiled a smile that reached his eyes and made him look even more handsome. "Here, let me help you, miss," he said as he they both reached for the split package on the ground. Their hands touched, and Marisa felt an odd tingle that she had yet to feel around any other man.
She could only stammer her thanks as he picked up the dress material and carefully folded it to put it back in the brown paper wrapping as best he could.
They stood at the same time and he kept the package in his hand. "Where are you going, miss? I'd shore be tickled if I could lend you a hand getting these packages there," he said in a slow drawl.
She could only point at her hitched wagon a few feet away. He took the other three smaller packages from her and strode over to the buckboard and slid the packages carefully under the seat.
He turned back to her and tipped his hat. "There you are, miss. I hope your goods didn't suffer. It would be a shame for that pretty material to get spoiled." He looked at her, and she felt none of the revulsion she had felt when McEwin had done so. Strangely, this time, she felt a charge go up her spine that left her a bit breathless.
She finally found her tongue. "Yes, thank you very much for your help."
"Yes ma'am, it was my pleasure. What's yore name?"
"Marisa. Marisa James." She answered. "What's yours sir?'
"That shore is a pretty name. And I'll bet a dollar to a doughnut, those dresses you make will look right pretty on you."
Marisa blushed and wondered why he made her feel like a school girl with her first crush.
The tall man asked. "Word has it, y'all have a new sheriff in town. Do you know where I might find him?"
At the thought of Sheriff McEwin, the spell was broken and her mood blackened. "You can probably find him at the local saloon down the street trying to drink all the free liquor he can," she replied in disgust.
He tipped his hat again. "Much obliged, ma'am," he said as he turned to go.
"Wait, you didn't tell me your name, kind sir."
The man stopped and looked back and hesitated. "Names are a funny thing. I always found a name is what you make of it, not the other way around. But, you can call me Jack." With that, he turned on his heel and strode down the street.
* * *
Henry Collins rose unsteadily from the stool at the end of the bar. He walked out back and went into the privy to relieve himself. As he pissed in the trench, he realized that he had worn out his welcome here in town. The bartender, instead of pouring him a drink at no charge, had demanded payment. Collins had been ready to argue, but decided against it when he saw hostile looks on the rest of the customers in the saloon. Oh well, he thought. He had made some serious money and he hadn't had to do anything other than pretend to be someone he was not. He had a tidy sum stuffed in his bedroll in the hotel. He would get it and leave first thing in the morning. But first, he wanted to see if he could get a taste of that pretty little brunette he had seen sauntering around town. He had bumped into her a week or so ago and she had been on his mind non-stop since then. He had found out she was the unmarried sister of the local blacksmith.
He buttoned up his britches and wiped his hands on his trousers. Yep, he decided, he would go find her, take her up to his room, have his way with her, then saddle up and ride away. It never occurred to him she might turn him down. After all, he was The Cactus Kid, he smiled to himself.
He walked back into the saloon, and stood for a moment to let his eyes get accustomed to the dim room after coming in from the bright mid-day sun.
As he stood there for a moment, he became aware of a tall stranger leaning against the bar, looking at him.
Collins scowled at the man. "You got a problem, mister?"
"Just one, Sheriff. You are the sheriff, right?"
Collins straightened himself a bit. "Yes. What do you want?"
The man pushed himself away from the bar. "It's not what I want, but what you need to do."
Collins didn't like where this was going. Something about the man's confidence and cool demeanor Collins found unsettling. "What do I need to do, stranger?"
"You need to quit parading around town using my name!"
Collins felt sweat break out on his forehead as he silently cursed himself for staying in this town so long. "Yeah, and just who are you and why do you think I'm using yore name?" he asked in a voice that was higher in pitch than he had intended.
"We both know what yore doing." The man drawled slowly with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Now the way I see it, sheriff, you got two choices."
Collins licked his suddenly dry lips and asked. "What's that?"
"You can tell all these nice folks who you really are, although frankly I don't care who you are, but you do need to tell them who you aren't"
"And the second choice?" Collins, spoke in a voice barely louder than a whisper.
The man pointed his left hand at the Colt hanging at Collins's hip. "It's right there."
The sound of chairs screeching as the others in the saloon got up to get out of the way of any stray bullets was the only sound.
Collins wiped his sweaty hands on the front of his trousers. He could hear his own heart beating it seemed, as he stood there.
"Well, what's it gonna be?"
Collins started to shake and thought, Hell, I beat Dutch Adams, I can beat this one too.
Suddenly, his right hand dipped towards his pistol. He had barely touched the wooden grip when a powerful blow hit him in the chest, knocking him back a step. What was that? he thought. Had the man thrown something at him? But, no, there he was, still standing twenty feet away, except now he held a smoking pistol in his hand.
He tried drawing his pistol. He got it about half way out of his holster. Strange, he didn't remember it being so heavy before. He got a better grip and pulled it out, when another blow struck him right above his belt buckle and he felt himself falling.
He rolled over and watched as the tall man strode over and stood over him.
"Well, I made a good try anyway." he croaked at the man.
"Shore, you were game, but you weren't even close, son."
With that, Henry Collins sighed and took his last breath and went limp on the dusty floor of a south Texas saloon.
The tall man stood up and looked around at the men behind him. "Here's something to help bury him with." He said as he laid a ten dollar gold piece on the bar. "Shame nobody knows his real name."
With that, the tall stranger strode out the door into the bright sunlight. He mounted his horse and reined it to head north out of town, when he spied the beautiful young woman he had helped earlier.
She stood looking at him, and he tipped his hat and said in an almost sad voice, "I'll shore bet you look mighty fetching in that new dress, ma'am"
And with that, he left town in a cloud of dust.