The times were changing. But no one bothered to tell Billy "Bull" Windborne anymore. They used to. But he had been as accepting of such talk as the dry ground around the infamous Dodge City. It was 1894 and the "Old West" was dying off. But old Bull Windborne wasn't dead yet, and, as far as he was concerned, neither was the West he grew up on.
* * *
On one particular afternoon, Windborne rolled into town atop his spotted grey thoroughbred and headed for his familiar haunt, the Saratoga Saloon. He sauntered in and glared at all the men in quiet conversation around the bar. They spared him a glance in return, most moving off to tables. Bull took his place beside Kirby Jackson and the two looked like a contrast of eras. Kirby was dressed in a nice black suit, with a derby hat to match. His face was clean-shaven save for a finely trimmed mustache. Bull, on the other hand, was dusty, dressed in ragged wear, with his cowboy hat stained with sweat, rain, and dust. His face was grizzled, with a scraggly beard that never seemed to grow and Bull never seemed to cut it.
"Still acting like a dentist, Kirb?" Bull began.
Kirby looked sideways at his drinking partner. "Still acting like a tough gunman, Bull?"
Several men snickered behind them at the tables. Windborne glared over his shoulder and the snickering stopped.
"Jack, give me the usual," Bull demanded.
As the barkeep readied the strongest mix of alcohol anyone ever ordered, Kirby Jackson turned his body to face Bull Windborne.
"How long has it been, Bull? Four years since you came back? When will you realize this town ain't what it used to be?"
"It can be great again, Kirb," growled Bull, "When you pansy men get the yellow out of your bellies!"
Kirby shook his head. "That ain't happenin', Bull. The East has finally caught up with the West. We're a civilized cow town . . . thank goodness." Some men muttered "here, here" to that statement and Bull glared over his shoulder again to silence them.
"Yet in the midst of all this sophistication," Kirby continued, "you remain as the ever-present reminder of our town's odious past."
"Odious, my foot!" Bull shot back. "This town used to have some flavor to it. Now it's all dried up like Boot Hill! Why, all the good saloons burned down (no offense, Jack) and what did you do about it? Nothin'! And now all the people that made this town int'resting are gone."
"Yes, and they moved farther west. Which makes me—and a whole lot of other people—wonder why on earth you prefer to stay here? Do you think you can be some gun-slinging preacher of the older days to start a revival? Or do you just hide here in the shell of an old cow town because you're a shell of the man you want to be?"
A tense silence swept over the place. Bull turned his body to face Kirby and rested his right hand on his gun.
"Sounds like fightin' words to me," Windborne said quietly. "You want to take this outside, Doc?"
Kirby stared at Bull with a quiet confidence. "I don't carry a gun, Bull. Besides, there's a law against fighting in the streets. Fists, guns, or otherwise."
Jack, the barkeep, couldn't handle the tension anymore and cut in. "Bull, you gonna drink up or am I gonna hafta waste my liquor?"
Windborne's eyes shot to the little glass filled with its deadly concoction. He picked it up, raised it to his mouth, and looked at Jackson.
"Here's lookin' at your teeth, Doc." He turned to the others in the saloon and downed the whole drink in one toss. Slamming the glass down on the bar, he proclaimed, "See that? That's how a man drinks! A nice, hard drink that sets your insides on fire but puts hair on your chest. If you pathetic excuses for men knew better, you'd join me!"
No one moved. Kirby sighed. Bull always made a speech like this whenever he drank at that saloon, ever since he returned to Dodge City.
The jagged man glared at his fellows, fumbled for a couple coins in his shirt pocket, slammed them on the bar next to his glass, and stormed out through the door. The barkeep sighed, "He doesn't even realize the price has gone up."
Typically Bull Windborne would stop by a dry goods store or someplace else along his way out of town. But today he was in a bad humor and, mounting his steed, galloped down the street to beat a path home. What the dentist said had him rankled.
As he rode past one particular house, a man standing at the window smiled.
"There goes old Bull Windborne," said the man, dressed in a white suit with a straw hat on his round head. He was a young man by the name of Logan Branch and he was vice-mayor.
"I saw him roll in," replied the voice of an older man, currently hidden by a newspaper. "He usually stays later. Something must have gone wrong."
"Probably couldn't find anybody to get in a fight with," the young man laughed. "Why does he hang around here, anyways?"
"It's a free country, Logan, a man can stay wherever he wishes."
"I know, Bo, what I meant was—"
The older man put down the paper. "I know what you mean, Logan. Some things just aren't our business to know." The older man glanced out the window and seemed to drift off in his mind. He was Mayor Bo Otis Hill. In his younger days he came to Dodge City and was run out by Wyatt Earp. Now, in his old age, life had been better to him. He married a wife who bore him five children and cooked some mean suppers. Those suppers showed on his rotund figure and his fat face noted for its bushy white mustache.
"But to more important matters," the mayor suddenly said, "we need to figure out how to keep this town alive. More and more people are picking up stakes to go to Colorado or all the way to California. We need a reason to keep people here."
Logan looked at the mayor, nervously wiped his bare chin, and sat down at a chair across from the mayor's desk. "That's a thorny issue, Bo. Thanks to the railroad, there's not much use for Dodge City anymore."
"I know. But we need something that shows we're still an important town!"
Logan glanced out toward the window and then the wheels started turning. He snapped his fingers and leaned forward.
"I know what we need! Or rather, who we need: Bull Windborne!"
While Logan Branch expounded on his thought to an incredulous Mayor Hill, Bull Windborne arrived at his small dilapidated shack just a mile or so west of town along the Arkansas River. A small stable around the back housed the horse. He corralled the steed and looked down toward the river and saw one of the few friends he had in life, Nakos, an Arapaho Indian who lived in a wigwam another mile west of Bull.
"Howdy, Nak! Whatcha doin' up this-a-way?"
Bull laughed. "I think you have a better chance of catching fish in a cactus."
Nakos laughed, too. "Join me, Bull." The cowboy acquiesced. "Man came around looking for you."
"Yeah? Who was he?"
"Don't know. Bad looking character. Said he'd come back."
Bull smiled slightly. "Sounds like my old foe, Clay Tremont. He said he'd drop by one of these years."
"Men still have those these days?"
"Real men do!" Bull snapped. "Now, granted, we're not into killing each other, but I guess you could say we're competing whenever we meet. Fact is, he gave me my nickname. Earned it in a fight when I called him cheating at cards in Arizona. We went out into the street and in the middle of the fight I saw a couple of cards fly out of his sleeve! He knew he was caught. Said, 'Billy, you're a bull, you know that? I'll call you 'Bull' from here on out!' Then I told him to get me my money that he won and while he went in, I cleaned my face in the horse trough. Well, he never came back. Turns out he snuck out the back with my money, stole the owner's horse, and got away!"
Bull Windborne laughed at this. Nakos gazed into the river.
"You odd man, Bull," the native replied at last.
"Everybody else seems to think so!" Bull replied, anger returning to his voice. "What's with everyone? They act like it's strange to be the way I am."
"You strange. You act like man from last decade."
"Yeah? What's wrong with that?"
"Last decade is no more. Time is like a river. Always fluid, always moving, never still. You float along or you sink." He turned to Bull and pointed at him. "You are sinking man."
"Sinking my ears!" Bull returned. "I'm just livin' as I was born to live! My grand-dad fought Indians out here. He survived all that and died in the War. My pa survived the War and brought me west when ma died. Then he got murdered here in Dodge. Buried him in Boot Hill. Been nearly twenty years."
"Yes, and you left to find killer. Never found him."
"No, I found him! Someone beat me to the kill, though . . . "
"So you returned home. You expected things to be the same. But no. Savage land now tame. You belong in another place, another time, Bull Windborne."
"What's your point?"
"Trying to keep you from drowning."
They sat in silence for a moment, watching the river run by.
Then Nakos spoke again. "Why do you stay, Bull?"
"Why not? It's home."
"You been a drifter. Drift on to new home!"
"You don't understand."
"Because your father is buried here?"
Bull looked sharply at his Indian friend. "Maybe." Then, after Nakos stared at him for a minute, "Well, he's the only family I have left!"
"Father is dead. Make own family. Join rest of your people."
Bull squirmed a little and finally bolted up and paced back and forth along the bank. He seemed on the verge of an answer but finally muttered something about needing to cook dinner, and turned to leave his friend alone on the bank.
"Bull," the Indian called after him, "Your father, victim of past age. You are different man in different time."
The next afternoon, Bull returned to Dodge for another round of drinking and taunting others into a fight. After again being unsuccessful, he slowly cantered home. On his way out, a man hailed him from the doorway of a house. He hurried to him with hand outstretched.
"Bull Windborne? Logan Branch, vice mayor. You have a moment?"
Bull was a little tipsy and on the verge of throwing a punch, but he squinted his eyes to try and focus on the important man.
"Bull, I want to tell you about a celebration we're plannin' on throwing in a couple weeks for the Fourth of July. I've convinced the mayor to make the emphasis our fine city's heritage. So, we're going to have a shooting and quick draw competition!"
"Sounds fine, Mr. Vice Mayor," Bull muttered back, "but why tell me?"
"Well, I want to be sure that our town's last true gunfighter will be there to show us how it's done. And did I mention the prize for winning the competitions is a pretty sight of money?"
Bull instantly sobered up a little. "How much exactly?"
"We haven't cleared it yet in our budget, but it'll be a good amount, I promise you."
The old cowboy straightened up in his saddle and peered down at the young man. "Well, Mr. Vice Mayor, you better ready your eyes for some of the finest shootin' you ever did see!"
And without another word, Bull kicked the horse into a trot, riding off into the sunset. Logan grinned stupidly after him.
Bull spent most of his ride home thinking about the competition and the prize. This was certainly a good sign that the town was returning to its roots. Maybe once people saw how slick and fancy gun-slinging was, they'll all wear guns! And then there was that prize money. What money Bull had accumulated in his travels was nearly expended. That prize sounded like easy money to Bull. How could he pass up such an opportunity?
But his mind instantly switched from visions of free cash to wariness as he approached his shack. Someone was in it. A flickering light shined through the dusty window. Quietly he dismounted, drew his gun, and crept up on the door. In one swift movement, he swung it open and aimed his gun at a spindly man leaning back in Bull's lone chair. The man's squashed face grinned at Bull.
"Bull Windborne! 'Bout time you got home!"
"Clay Tremont! I oughtta fill you solid with lead for scaring me like that!"
The two came together in a cordial handshake. Bull excused himself to put his horse in the stable, only to find Clay's horse occupying it. He soon returned, however, and the two immediately fell into talking about past fights they had between each other.
After one particular story, Bull laughed aloud and shook his head sadly.
"Clay, we need someone like you around here. You'd help me liven this place up."
Clay laughed a little and said, "Oh Bull, I don't plan on settling anywheres. Question is, why'd you stay here? Figured a man with your travels and reputation wouldn't leave the trail so quick! They say you found the grave of the man you was huntin' and came straight home. What happened to you?"
The smile vanished from Bull's face. "I had my fill of roaming. Wanted to settle for a while. Figured Dodge would be a good place."
"But it ain't! It's deader than a prairie dog in an eagle's nest here!"
"Yeah? There's hope, though. Just saw the vice mayor and he told me they was having a big shootin' competition this Independence Day. Asked me to be a part of it. I think they're realizing my value to this town!"
Clay looked thoughtfully at Bull. "Shooting competition, you say? Probably a big get together, right?"
Bull eyed Clay suspiciously. "Yeah. What of it?"
"That would be perfect cover for why I came here. And you could help me!"
"How?" asked Bull, still suspicious.
"Well, you see, I've fallen on some hard times with money and need some quick dough."
"Enter that competition I told you about! 'Course you'll have a rough time of it against me."
Clay smiled and shook his head. "No, Bull, you got it all wrong! Why win money when you can simply take it?"
Bull knew where this was going now. "Clay, are you fixin' to rob a bank?"
The other gunfighter's smile widened. "Not just any bank, Bull, the one in Dodge City!"
Bull eyed him for a moment and thought hard. "You can't," he said at last. "If you rob the bank I bet the whole town would go under!"
"Well then, we could be Clay Tremont and Bull Windborne: The Men who Destroyed Dodge! That'd be a pretty epitaph!"
"As pretty as a longhorn shoving a horn up your butt!"
"Oh think sensibly, Bull! Help me out and I'll give you half the cut."
"No, absolutely not!"
"I've been a rough man, Clay, but I'm no outlaw! My father would turn over in his grave."
"So let him! His opinion don't matter no how anymore."
Bull's face turned a dangerous shade of red and his eyes resembled storm clouds. "I ain't taking no part in your misdeeds. What you do on your own time is your business. But, so help me, if I catch you robbin' Dodge I'll shoot ya!"
Clay smiled and leaned back in his chair confidently. "You won't shoot me. You've never shot a man in your life."
"Get out!" Bull roared, leaping from his bed and drawing his gun. Clay could see his welcome was worn and promptly exited the shack. "And get your horse out of my stable!"
For the next couple of weeks, Bull practiced his sharpshooting, setting up a target on the other side of the river, as well as his quick draw. Nakos initially joined him with a mind to enter the competition, but gave up after seeing Bull's superior aim and skill. In town, the competition had been announced and a buzz the citizens hadn't felt in a long time returned. When Bull rode into town, he no longer harassed the Saratoga's patrons, but further goaded them into excitement. Most of the men planned on entering and going against Bull as an act of civil revenge after all the evenings he spent insulting them.
So the fever was right when the Fourth of July 1894 came upon Dodge City. Bull rode in early, sitting straight and tall in his saddle. Today, he thought, he would show the town a true cowboy. In the town square the whole city gathered. Most of the men who frequented the saloons stood at the firing line with their rifles handy. Even Kirby Jackson was among them, though he looked awkward holding a gun.
The shoot-off lasted a good while. In the end, it was between Bull Windborne and the town undertaker, Shoal Helmand. Bull finally won when they pushed the targets back so far only Bull's bullet reached (and hit a bull's-eye) and Shoal's thudded in the hay beneath the targets.
Soon after, the quick-draw contest took place. It was not only who had the fastest draw, but the best aim, too. Bull Windborne won easily. By now the crowd cheered wildly for Bull. For once he was the talk of the town, and not in a bad way. As the targets were removed to make way for the next competition, foot racing, Bull waded through the crowd toward an ally to place his rifle in his saddle scabbard. As he came around the corner, Nakos met him.
"Nakos, you're as scary as a ghost sometimes!"
"Bull, we have trouble. Saw Clay Tremont robbing bank."
Bull's mirthful face changed drastically. "Are you sure?"
"I don't make mistakes."
"I'll go settle his hash," Bull grumbled ominously.
"Bull! This not like old days! Let police handle this."
"Well, you go get the police and I'll hold Clay up."
Nakos ran off to find a policeman and Bull wound his way through the city to where the bank was. Sure enough, there was Clay, loading up a pack mule. Bull drew his pistol and stepped out into the street.
"I told you not to do it, Clay."
The robber turned quickly and went for his gun, but froze at the sight of Bull's. An uneasy smile stretched across his face.
"Bull! Now what are you talking about? This? Nothing wrong with having a horse and pack mule is there?"
Bull advanced toward the mule, his gun always pointed at Clay. He lifted a flap on a satchel and peered in.
"I told you not to rob the bank, Clay," said Bull after reaching in and confirming the presence of money.
"Now Bull, keep that gun steady. I'm not sure you know how to use it!"
Bull scowled at him. "Know how to use it better than most! Won two competitions with my guns."
"That so? Well, it made for a great distraction while I did my job."
"All right, 'nuff talk! We'll get ya to the sheriff's office and maybe I can add some more money to my winnings."
Clay eyed the gun and then looked across the street at the Saratoga Saloon. "How 'bout we drink on that?" Clay nodded toward the saloon. "Let's drink to celebrate! You winning so much money and me nearly getting away with it."
Bull glanced at the saloon and then back at Clay's face. He had a hard time reading Clay. It could be a trick, but he was a little thirsty for some liquor. Surely Clay would honor the fact that Bull had him as a prisoner.
"OK . . . but no tricks!"
Clay raised his hands and put on an innocent face. He led the way across the street and swung open the doors.
"I'll make the drinks!" Clay declared, taking his place behind the bar. "What'll it be?"
"The usual," Bull replied, holstering his pistol and not realizing that Clay had no idea what "the usual" was. Clay said nothing, though, seeing that Bull was loosening up some.
He mixed together some drinks and slid the glass across the bar to Bull, who picked it up and sniffed it. The smell was a little off. Clay pulled out a mug and poured his own cocktail of alcohol. He finished by raising his glass to Bull. The two sipped their drinks in silence.
"I said I'd shoot you if you tried anything," Bull muttered at last.
"And you haven't yet," Clay responded. "For which I am grateful."
"Well, it's like this, Clay, you and I may be pretty opposite, but I respect you. You're one of the few friends I have in this world. I'd sure hate to shoot ya."
Clay shook his head humorously. "That's the thing I like about people these days: Everyone's so trusting! Leave their front doors unlocked and wide open. Let's drink to that!"
Clay raised his glass and Bull mirrored him. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Clay cock his arm back and hurl his glass at him. He twisted his body in time for the mug to shatter on his left shoulder. Next thing he knew, Clay sprang out the door. Bull threw his glass down and gave chase.
The robber reached his horse and wheeled it out into the street to dart off. As he kicked the horse into a gallop, Bull leapt and caught onto Clay's leg and was carried off with the horse and its rider. Bull thought it curious that Clay would leave behind all that money on the mule, but as his body bounced off the saddle bag he realized the man had filled his own bags full.
Clay tried desperately to shake Bull. He pulled his leg out of the stirrups and tried kicking Bull off. But the determined man reached up and grabbed at the reins, steering the horse down a side street. Soon they were riding the opposite way through the race course, past several participants, and finally they burst into the crowded square. It was here that the old cowboy finally pulled the outlaw from his steed and the two crashed to the ground in front of a hotel.
Clay was the first up and looked wildly around. He wasn't good in situations like this, when things were going wrong. The only thing he could think of now was trying to find a way of escape. He ran toward the hotel. Bull, a little slower to get up, lunged after him, but Clay turned and laid a fist across Bull's jaw. Bull fell to his hands and knees but quickly resumed the chase into the building.
Now Clay realized he didn't know where the backdoor was, and with Bull hot on his heels, his panic instinct drove him upstairs. At the top, Bull managed to tackle Clay and the two rolled along the hall. Clay threw Bull off and when they stood, the former gave the latter a hard kick to the chest, sending him through a door and into a room.
An idea struck Clay now. He had heard of people escaping along rooftops, surely he could do it, too! He jumped over Bull's body and made for the window. His hand was reaching out when Bull's strong arms enveloped him and the two old cowboys crashed through the window, rolled down the awning, and fell with a terrific thud on the hard ground.
By now the whole crowd was riveted upon these two fighters from the past. Women gasped, men stood shocked, and kids gaped with eager anticipation. The two men, much older than they used to be, staggered about trying to be the first to face the other. They finally pulled themselves upright about the same moment and Clay's face had lost all pretense of coolness.
"Enough of this, Bull!" And he went for his gun.
Bull naturally went for his and displayed his winning fast draw. But Clay's pistol was caught on a thong and he struggled to get it free. Bull waited. He couldn't shoot a man who didn't have an equal chance. Besides, could he shoot a man at all?
The world seemed to stop and Bull's eyes opened for the first time. He saw all the families gathered around the square. All the nice carriages. Even the houses and storefronts looked pristine. And then Bull thought of all that just happened. The chase, the fight, crashing through the window. All normal fare for a cowboy, he used to assume. But now he felt out of place, almost embarrassed. Maybe it was time to move on . . .
But then Clay yanked his gun free and fired wildly from his hip. A slug smashed into Bull's left rib cage and he reactively clenched his fists. As a result, he accidentally squeezed the trigger on his pistol and a shot went off. He had aimed at Clay's heart and his aim held true. A fire burned in his side and Billy Windborne slowly collapsed to the ground as he watched Clay Tremont fall lifelessly backwards. Gasps and screams echoed all around. Bull dropped his gun in disgust and the sky, the town, the people all faded into nothingness.
When Bull came to, he found himself on his own bed and a morning light streaming through the window. Nakos had a fire going in the stove, cooking eggs and bacon. He groaned and stirred, drawing Nakos' attention. He spooned some food from the skillet to a plate and handed it to Bull.
"Here, friend," he greeted. "Eat up. You out nearly whole day."
Bull groaned again and sat up, accepting the grub. His side still burned.
"What happened?" he muttered. "They didn't arrest me?"
Nakos smiled. "How could they? They found money Clay stole from bank. Besides, you shot in self-defense. Whole town saw it. You waited for him to shoot first. Not smart for health. But smart for law. Lucky doctor retrieved bullet."
Bull grinned a little and ate some eggs in silence while Nakos dished some food out for himself and ate at the table. Bull realized at this point that Nakos was a good cook. He had also been a good friend. Someone he knew he could trust.
Finally, he laid his fork down with his plate and looked at his Indian companion. "Nak, I realized something out there, while I waited on Clay to draw." He paused. "I realized I was drowning."
Nakos smiled. "About time, Bull Windborne."
"The fact is, Nak, I stay here in Dodge because I feel guilty. I spent almost 20 years roaming the vast expanse of the West, living the rough life as I always wanted to. Then come to find out my pa's killer had already been killed. I felt like I had failed. I wasted all that time in saloons and fights and in the end failed my one mission. So I came back to Dodge, hoping to prove myself in the shadow of my pa's grave . . . Maybe I tried too hard."
Nakos nodded slowly, solemnly. "Ghosts tend to exist only in our mind. We think we know what dead think. It is a guess. Time is a rough current. Hard to swim upstream."