To say that a tumble weed was suddenly rolling through the abandoned town on an ominous wind would be too cliche, and yet, I find no better way to explain the small, troubled town that our story takes place in. A once blissful community where everybody would know each other and the sheriff’s biggest problem was who was cheating who at the local saloon every Friday night in poker was now a deserted wasteland of dusty memories, covered wagon tracks and hoof prints. Except for a few settlers left behind to watch the soon-to-be bloodshed with a morbid fascination, the town was a lonely speck on an ever growing map of the old west.
Things had perhaps gotten a bit more out of hand then the young lovers would have wanted or realized at the time. It would start like any other romantic love story. A young cattle farmer, Cliff, with little hope of becoming much else in his elder years, would fall in love with the mayor’s young and somewhat naive daughter, Gisabelle, who had money to come into upon wedding a wealthy older man and prospects of a good upbringing. How else would these lovers come to be anything else but soul mates except to have their eyes meet across a dusty road at just the same moment? A spark that would last only a single instant, would come to light a candle’s flame in the hearts of two desperate lovers who’s only hope to wed and be happy would be to run away after the mayor turned down the young cattle farmer’s proposal of love and matrimony.
“It’s not fair, Papa!” called Gisabelle. That strong country vocal only flourished more in a feminine rage that was accented by the long red hair that stood in a frizz in the western heat. “I love him and you won’t keep me from him!”
“To hell I won’t, Gisabelle. Warren is a finer man. A wealthier match and if you want anymore to do with this family you will do as you are told!” An angry father would raise his temper and his blood pressure dealing with such a romantically stubborn daughter. Defiance was not something Conner Shields would tolerate from the town he ran of Clearbrook, let alone his sixteen year old daughter and her fantasies.
With a terrible huff and a flushed face, Gisabelle ran from the room, her small green dress train following behind her. Tears had erupted from emerald eyes as she took off down the dirt road, near the city limits where a young Cliff would be waiting on horseback. The night had fallen before Cliff had gotten Gisabelle calmed down enough to think rationally. At least, rationally enough for two young lovers to comprehend. The plan was set. Gisabelle would walk home alone with a clear head and a calmed attitude. She would apologize to her father and head straight to bed and when the house was quiet, she would pack a few of her belongings in a suit bag and climb out of her second story window when the moon was highest in the sky and be greeted by her ever welcoming fiancee. The next town was a nights ride away and if they hurried, they would be in the next town over and wed before her father ever knew she was gone and it would be to late to do anything about it. That was the plan anyway.
“Don’t worry, my little Desert Rose. No one will suspect and we can be together, I promise you.” Cliff’s words were comforting at the least. He was a young man of eighteen, full of lustful thoughts of a new bride and being a new husband. A strong jaw and a hard head would be is undoing. Those words however filled Gisabelle with an overwhelming suspense that only came from doing something you were told not to do.
“Oh darlin’, I long for mornin’ to come faster then I ever have before.” and with a gentle kiss that seemed to last half the night, she was on her way home and things were set in motion.
Now, as the hot sun was rising above the deserted town, things were becoming more real in young Cliff’s mind. He was about to stand toe to toe with Warren Pickerdy, a wealthy lawyer in the town and a gunslinger to boot. Now anyone who’s anyone would know that if someone had a reputation for being a gunslinger and was still alive, they apparently weren’t on the losing end of however many battles they were caught up in. He was in agreement with the mayor to wed his lovely daughter and in doing so would also be the one to inherit a pretty little fortune that came if the mayor were to ever become deceased of natural causes. Otherwise everything would go to his daughter. Warren wasn’t about to let anything get in his way, so when the sheriff caught the young lovers trying to find a way for Gisabelle to get out of her second story window, things just rolled on from there. Warren was contacted by Mayor Shields that another suitor for Gisabelle’s heart was around and Warren knew of only one way to settle who would gain the poor girl’s faithful heart.
As the morning sun began to rise over the pastel horizon of the dusty scene, the sheriff had ordered a temporary evacuation of the town due to ‘unsafe arising circumstances”. They were to get onto horses, wagon’s or travel by foot to one of the ranches based outside the town or were welcome to travel throughout the day to the next town over of Sattleback. This was for the safety of the townsfolk so no stray bullets would take off and hit an unsuspecting innocent by-standard. Warren Pickerdy was preparing himself within his townhouse near the end of Baker Street and had little troubling imagining just how this day would end. He had taken a life before, that was not new to him, but within the rules and laws of the old west, you had to watch what you said or did. After all, a fair fight or “taking it outside” only led to quick draws and bullet holes. His hollowed eyes watched out the window as the last of the evacuees from his street packed their wagon and headed off, a glass of bourbon in his hand. It was a little early to be drinking but this kind of day needed a bit of liquor to get it started.
Meanwhile, in the mayors own home, Cliff was standing in front of a body length mirror and staring at the horrible scene in front of him. He was already strapped down at the hip with a single pistol that had one shot. He had used a gun before but only to put down an animal in distress and that was a rifle. The mind of a young man about now would be wishing he didn’t lay eyes on young Miss Gisabelle. He had no time however to think about backing out when Gisabelle walked into the room, wearing a dark blue dress and a hat that had a black lace veil hanging down in front of her face, as if that wouldn’t make Cliff anymore nervous then he already was. He caught her walking in in the mirror and turned around with haste.
“And this is supposed to make me feel comforted, is it?” Cliff spoke, exasperated at what she was wearing.
“Darlin’ calm down, this ain’t for you. I’m just tryin’ to intimidate Mr. Pickerdy, thats all.” She seemed calm enough but was that really what was on her mind at the time, or would she be a good addition to the Friday night poker games in the saloon?
“Yeah well, I doubt your dear Mr. Pickerdy is shakin’ in his spurs.” The sarcasm was thick as he prepared himself for a high noon quick draw that would decide the fate of his happiness. The question was, would he still want Miss Gisabelle if he won, or was this one of those ‘Only want what you can’t have’ scenarios?
As high noon approached, the last few spectators that had gone against the sheriff’s wishes to leave, were standing on the covered porches of houses and business establishments. The air was thick was the rising heat and left a musty taste on the tongues of everyone around. Now would be the scene where the music got heavier and more distraught as from behind one building, Cliff took slow steps to make way to the center of the street where the draw would take place. Warren rode up on white steed and dismounted at the edge of the block, walking the rest of the way to the center of the street where both would stand toe to toe where Mayor Shields and his daughter stood.
“Alright gentlemen, I am sure you both know how this works. When I say begin, you two will stand heel to heel and at the same time begin your fifty pace walk in opposite directions from each other. I will be countin’ to make sure no cheatin’ takes place. When you both reach your fifty paces, you will turn around and at my signal, you will do as you both intended to do. The winner, will win my young Gisabelle’s hand in marriage with or… without my blessin’.” Mayor Shields had passed an obvious glance of dislike and disgust at the young farm hand. Warren was standing with his head held high and passing his own gaze to the lovely young woman standing near him. There was something in his eye however that said he was not so much worried about who he was winning as to what when it came time for her father’s passing. Not that lawyer’s didn’t make a pretty profit of their own but the added comfort would be more then enough to live off of for the rest of his days. Cliff however, was more worried about himself at this point. Gisabelle was not the one in way of harm at the moment. He didn’t realize that when he got up the other morning he would be signing his own death warrant just by falling in love with a beautiful female.
“Are you two ready to begin then?” Mayor Shields spoke with a firm jaw as he allowed the two to stare each other down for a moment.
“Why young Cliff, you seem to be tremblin’. Is there somethin’ wrong?” Warren gave a most eerie grin before he turned to put his back straight and his feet together.
“I suppose I don’t have any way out of this at this point, so yes sir, I am ready.” With a gentle and yet regretful sigh, Cliff turned and set his back against the older man’s with his heels meeting Warren’s. Gisabelle however, was left with an unsatisfying feeling in her gut at her young love’s words.
“Then you may begin” Mayor Shields announced allowed for all the listening spectators to hear as he grabbed his daughters arm and took twenty steps away onto the nearby saloon porch both out of the sun and out of the way of fire.
Thirty paces, forty, it all seemed to be going so slow. He walked at an even pace for anyone to follow so he knew that about the time he hit fifty, so would Warren Pickerdy, the lawyer of town and a known gunslinger. Fifty paces were finally reached and as he suspected, the mayor called out for a halt and to turn and face the other. Slowly doing so with his heels kicking up a bit of dust as he turned, he couldn’t help but tremble more and more as his hand lay at his side, just above the holstered gun at his hip, unsnapping the safeguard and wiggling his fingers a bit. What was he doing? He wasn’t a gunslinger and he sure didn’t want to die.
“Alright, gentlemen. When your instincts allow!” shouted the mayor, and things were about to begin.
“When my instincts allow, is he crazy? If I were the type to listen to my instincts I wouldn’t be in this mess. The mayor’s daughter, Cliff? Your the crazy one. Your about to die for what? Long red hair, beautiful curved hips, deep emerald…” His words trailed off as his heart beat unrealistically faster within his chest. His deep, kind eyes were watching those of his beautiful Desert Rose fifty steps away. His mouth watered at the very sight of her, and he remember just why he was here.
With a quick shake of his head, he cleared away the fog from the storm inside his mind and looked straight ahead. There was his target, his enemy, his competition. Warren Pickerdy was standing one hundred paces from where he now stood and looked more cocky then serious. He believed he had everything in the bag already and that all he had to do was wait. Slowly, the corner of Warren’s lip curved upward in an almost satanic grin and then out of no where, two loud gun shots echoed through the abyss of time. One after the other. But who fired first?
The echo had long dispersed but the guns were still smoking. One held in each right hand of the competitors. Neither seemed to flinch in the scene that took places only moments before. The crowed was silent, filled with people trying to figure out what had just happened. Then, as everyone looked from one to the other, Warren Pickerdy slowly fell to his knees as blood trickled our from underneath his dark black top. The gun dropped from his hand and hit in a dusty mass upon the ground. Gasps of breath were taken as some rushed over to Warren to see just where he was hit, as other’s eyes trailed the long distance between the two and settled on the winner, Cliff Hankens.
Gisabelle’s eyes filled to the brim and overflowed with tears of excitement and joy that her beloved farm hand was alright. The mayor let his grip loosen and soon drop to his side in disbelief as Gisabelle rushed to Cliff’s side in exasperation. She flung her arms around him and clung to him like her life depended on it.
“My love! You won, I am so proud of you, I knew you could do it!” She could barely take a breath between words as she kissed and hugged with a delightful force.
“Yeah well, I guess I was a better shot then I thought. I’m just lucky that he decided to f-fall f-first… “His words seemed to stutter and tremble. They held no breath at all as he wrapped an arm around her waist. There though, he had no grip.
“Cliff, darlin’ what’s wrong? What do you–” Everything had rushed in at once. His words and the damp, sticky, liquid pooling in Gisabelle’s hand against Cliff’s back. Warren hadn’t missed. “Cliff your…” and her words were stopped as he suddenly went limp in her arms, unable to stand on his own two feet.
She rushed him to the ground, her bloody hand held out from her as his knees buckled and she laid his head in her folded lap. The tears hadn’t stopped. They had only gone from the excitement she felt soon before, to an utter terror that everything seemed to be slipping away.
“Gisabelle, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t take you away from your father. I’m sorry I couldn’t…” his words trailed off in a cough as blood seeped from the corner of his mouth and trickled down to begin a small pool in Gisabelle’s lap, staining the dark dress she wore.
“No, no don’t apologize. You gave me everythin’ when we were together, the short time we were. You did all this for me. I don’t desurve it. You don’t desurve this.” Tear after tear would drop in single motions and tap against Cliff’s cheek, washing away the dust that gathered there and leaving streaks of clean, creamy skin. She stroked his hair with her bloody hand, hugging her other around him the best she could as she laid the side of her head against his own.
“My beautiful Desert Rose, as beautiful as the flower that blooms,” he whispered, “do not cry for me. You filled my heart with more love in a few days, then I think I would find my whole life livin’.”
The time slowly slipped away just as his life slipped from between her fingers. The wind picked up,. spreading the dust on the ground into the air. Weeping women, startled men, they all watched in awe as the two young lovers said their goodbyes. No winners, merely losers in a game of the heart where everyone is hurt. What would happen now? Time would go on. The old west would be recorded in history as time of gunslingers, saloon fights and an era of romance all its own that would remain unmatched and unhindered.
The world was still growing around them, and time was still moving on. One thing, however, was for certain. The story of a young Cliff and Gisabelle, who’s love led to and ended at fifty paces, would never be forgotten in that tiny town and lessons of loving for the heart instead of the wealth, would be learned.