The Notched Gun

by Walt Coburn

Reprinted from Adventure, November 15th, 1928

I

Sam Graybull was a killer. He proved it now as he backed slowly out of the Valley Bank with a smoking Colt in one hand and a gunnysack full of currency in the other. The teller had made a move for the automatic below the money counter. Sam Graybull's bullet had caught the unfortunate man between the eyes.

The cashier, his movements sluggish from stark fear, made a break for the side door and was shot in the back.

"You'll be next," he told the young lady stenographer, "if you let out one yap."

The blizzard outside muffled the sound of the shots. There was no one abroad in the little storm swept cow town to block Sam Graybull's departure. He mounted the horse that stood humped in the snow. In five minutes he was lost in the storm, made thicker by the shadows of dusk, He left no telltale sign. Because the country between Milk River and the Bad Lands was as familiar as a child's back yard, he had no fear of capture. He tied the sackful of money to his saddle and fashioned a cigarette with thick, blunt fingers that were steady.

"That damn' bank dude's mouth flopped open shore comical." The rattle of Sam Graybull's laugh was blurred by the wind.

No fear of pursuit marred the killer's flight. He knew the ways of sheriff's posses. They would hole up at the first ranch. That is why he had held off till the storm broke, then rode into town and stuck up the bank. A one-man job. Cunningly planned, cold-bloodedly executed. The lives he had taken were but tally notches on his gun, no more. He would boast about it when he got drunk.

"That other'n piled up like a beef."

The storm swirled and moaned. The horse drifted with the wind, headed south for the Bad Lands. A man could hole up there and get plenty drunk. Grub in the cabin. Wood enough for a month. Hay a-plenty. A keg of moonshine licker. When a man got hard up for company, there was Pete Peralta and his wife across the river. Pete was a damn' fool but he knowed how to keep his mouth shut. Pete was all right. Just didn't have the guts to go out and take chances, that was all. Mebbe if it wasn't for the missus, Pete might swap a hayfork fer a gun and pick up some easy money. Pete's missus was just a young thing. Purty enough, so far as looks went. Kinda quiet. Scairt, like as not, because she wasn't used to men that had guts. But she had sense. Close mouthed like most 'breed women. No damn' sheriff'd ever git anything outa Rose Peralta.

It was getting dark now. Black as a hat. Sam Graybull shrank into his buffalo coat and let his horse drift along. He rode good horses. Whenever Sam Graybull stole a horse he picked a good one. It was nearly a hundred miles into the Larb Hills where they dropped in timbered ridges to meet the Missouri River. To travel all night in a blizzard was only part of a man's job. The same as killing those two bank dudes. And by evening tomorrow he would be at his cabin in the Bad Lands.

"That keg'll look good."

Sam Graybull liked whisky. He liked whisky like most men like women. Liked the color of it in a glass. Liked the gurgle of the stuff as it spilled out of a jug into a tin cup. Talk about music. The burn of it when a man tilted a jug and drank it thataway. God, fer a drink right now.

But Sam Graybull dared not drink till he got home. Tried it onct. Fell off a horse and froze both feet sleepin' in the snow. Peter Peralta was horse huntin' and found him. Pete's missus taken care of him. Pete wasn't much of a hand to drink. A few shots and Pete had a-plenty. Just enough to make that fiddle talk good. "The Red River Jig" and "Hell Among the Yearling's" and "Cross Eyed Moses." 'Breed tunes.

Sam hadn't seen Pete and his missus since early last spring. They were the only friends he claimed. A man on the dodge can't have many friends. Not when there's a big bounty on his scalp. That's the way most of the boys a`got theirs. Trustin' somebody. Hell, them fool posses never got nowhere. Milled around. And when they followed Sam Graybull they kept bunched. Damn' right they did.

Sam had been in Wyoming all summer. Gamblin' some amongst the sheep shearers. Gettin' drunk and eatin' good. Nobody the wiser. Who'd look around sheep camps fer a cow hand? Then he'd up and shot that Mexican shearer and had to drift back into Montana again. Too quick on the trigger.

Sam's rattling laugh broke forth again. He took out his .45 and with the nail file blade of his jacknife, he made two fresh notches on the gun's bone handle. That was the Indian in him. Sam was about a quarter breed Sioux. He was proud of those notches. Six, all told, counting the two bank dudes. Not bad fer a man thirty-one. He'd tell Pete and his missus. Pete'd grin kinda silly. The missus'd just sit and shiver like she was took with a chill. Scairt of a man that had guts. A man that was quick on the trigger.

Into the black maw of the canons and draws. Snow piling in till a man felt smothered. Black as a hat. Cold. Give a dollar fer a drink. Hell, give five dollars. Ten. There was money a-plenty in that sack. Whisky money.

Topping out on a long ridge. Into a dawn that was the color of dirty slate. A wind that bit plumb into a man's innards. Didn't dast drop into a ranch or even a sheep camp fer grub. There'd be no fool sign fer a posse to pick up. Nobody but Pete knew of that little log cabin tucked away in a pocket of the Bad Lands. Pines and brush and rocks. Grub cached. Shoot a black-tail buck or a yearling'. What's two days without grub? Make a man eat good when he got it. Whisky and meat. Good whisky and fat meat. Half way home now. Safe as dog in a hole.

Keep to the coulees, just under the rim of the ridges. No use skylinin' a man's self. All day. Horse gittin' laig weary. Stumbled into a badger hole. No harm done. Wind that shriveled a man's heart. Wind that cut the hide on a man's face. Feet like ice cakes. Like the blood was dried up. God, but that whisky'd send it chargin' through a man's veins, though. Fill a jug and go acrost to Pete Peralta's. A man needed talk when he'd bin alone so long. Pete'd drag out the fiddle. "Bed River Jig." "Hell among the Yearlin's." "Blue Bottles."

He pulled into his hidden canon that afternoon. A frost seared, fur clad figure, red eyed from the wind and loss of sleep. A lone figure in a vast white world. Cold, hungry, craving whisky as a man on a parched desert craves water. With a fortune tied in a gunnysack. Two fresh notches on the bone handle of a short barreled Colt .45. A laugh rattling in his throat.

Hay in the barn. Pete had put up that hay. The spring above the cabin was warm. It never froze. Had an iron taste to it.

Sam Graybull watered and fed his gaunt horse. While no law of God or man had weight with the killer, he never violated that creed of the range that commands its men to care for a horse that has carried a man. After that he may look to his own comfort.

Sam Graybull found the whisky keg buried under the hay. He found a tin cup, and with a corner of his fur coat he wiped some of the dust from inside it. Then he squatted there by the keg and drank a cup of whisky as if the stuff were water. He sat there for better than half an hour. Drinking until the ache thawed from his bones and the hunger pains left his empty stomach. Now and then he laughed. The horse would give a start and look around, ears erect. Sam Graybull's laugh was unlike the laughter of any other man because there was no humor in it. More like a death rattle.

He was steady enough on his feet when he got up and went to the cabin. As steady as a man can be when he has been frozen into the saddle for a night and a day, and when he is bundled in fur coat and chaps and four buckle overshoes.
"Fill a jug and go visit Pete Peralta, To hell with cookin'. Pete's missus'll sling up some grub." His cracked, frost blackened lips split in a grin as he saw smoke coming from the Peralta cabin, across the river among the skeleton cottonwoods.

He found a jug and filled it. Then he kicked off his chaps and located a pair of snowshoes. It was as easy goin' afoot as it was a-horseback. He slung the jug about his shoulder with a bit of rope. Then he took his carbine and fitted it into a worn buckskin sheath.

"Whisky. Cartridges. All set." Then he remembered the money in the gunnysack. 'Whisky's takin' holt." He hid the money in the hay. Then, shuffling along on his webs, he crossed the river to Pete Peralta's place.

II

Even before he rapped on the door, Sam Graybull sensed that something was wrong at the home of Pete Peralta. Horses in the hay corral, nibbling from the snow capped stack. Gate down. No tracks around. Cattle, gaunt flanked and hollow eyed, bawling for water in the lower pasture. Woodpile buried in the snow. Yet there was smoke coming from the chimney. A light inside, against the coming dusk.

"Come in!" Was that the voice of Pete Peralta? Sam could not see through the window. Frost had made the panes opaque.

Cautiously Sam Graybull opened the door. His jug and carbine laid aside, he held his Colt in his hand, the hammer thumbed back. He kicked the door open.

For a moment Sam Graybull stood there, half crouched, ready. Then he straightened. The gun hammer lowered gently and the weapon went back into its holster.

For propped up on a bunk beside the stove, one leg in rude splints, sat Pete Peralta. A hollow eyed, gaunt cheeked, unshaven Pete.

"Sam! Sam Graybull!" His voice was like the hoarse call of a crow. But there was a prayer in its welcome, as he voiced the name of the killer.

From the bedroom beyond came a broken, moaning sob. A woman's sob. A woman half delirious with pain.

"Horse fell and busted my leg . . .About a week ago . . . Rose took care of me until she had to quit . . . She's goin' to have a baby-and no doctor inside a hundred miles. I reckon she'll die."

It took Sam Graybull some seconds to comprehend fully. A pint or more of raw whisky on an empty stomach does not make for quiet thinking. The fact that he could retain even a semblance of his faculties proved the toughness of the killer.

"Doctor, eh?" Sam Graybull pushed back his muskrat cap and ran blunt fingers through his shock of coarse black hair. "Doctor? Yeah, you sure need one, don't you, Pete?"

"Not me, Sam. Her. She's out of her head, kinda."

"Dyin', Pete?"

"She will, I reckon. There has to be a factor when a baby comes."

Sam Graybull passed his hand across his eyes. He knew nothing of childbirth. There had never been room in his killer's heart for sympathy for man or woman. Life and the losing of life meant but little to him. He nodded, black brows knit in a thoughtful scowl. Then he stepped outside and brought in the jug.

He poured three drinks into tin cups.

"Do us all good, Pete. Then we'll kinda figger this thing out." He took one of the cups and went into the next room.

"Howdy, Rose. Git outside o' this. Nothin' like it to kill pain."

Dimly, through eyes that were mere slits of red, he saw the white face of the girl. White as the pillow against the mass of black hair. He lifted her head and held the cup against the lips that seemed drained of blood.

'The pain-the pain . . ."

"Hell, ain't it? But that drink'll do you good."

He went back into the other room and handed Pete his cup.

"Here's luck, Pete. Down 'er. More where that come from."

Sam gulped down his drink without a grimace. His brain seemed to be clearing.

"Where do you keep your pencil and paper, Pete?"

"That shelf. God, Sam, if we could only do somethin' to help her."

"Keep your shirt on." Sam found the writing pad and pencil. He handed them to the crippled man.

"Write a note to the doctor, Pete. Tell it scary." Sam pulled on his cap again. "I'll be ready by the time you git it wrote."

"Where you goin', Sam?"

"Out to saddle up the best horse you got. I'm goin' for the doctor. I'll stop by the nearest ranch and have 'em send over somebody to ride herd on you." The door banged shut behind him.

Sam caught Pete's best horse. When he had saddled the animal, he came back inside.

"Got that note finished?"

"Yes. But you can't make it into town, Sam."

"The hell I can't. The storm's quit, I know the road, and I ain't so drunk but what I kin ride. Lemme have that pencil."

He scrawled something at the foot of the note. Then he folded the paper and put it into his pocket.

"Hang and rattle, Pete, till the doc gits here." He poured some of the whisky into an empty vinegar bottle and put the corked bottle into his overcoat. Then he filled the two cups.

"Here's how, Pete. If the kid looks like you, I shore feel sorry fer the critter."

Sam tossed down his drink and before Pete Peralta could say a word, he was gone.

III

It was almighty hard luck, the way things had turned out for a man. When the only friend a man had was laid up with a busted laig and a sick wife. No "Red River Jig." No fire to set by. No Pete to talk to and tell how comical that bank dude looked when he dropped. No warm grub. Only that bottle. Better drop past the cabin and fill a jug. When a man ain't slept ner et he'd orter have a jug along to keep him alive.

He stopped at his cabin long enough to fill the jug. Then he pulled out. He rode into a Long X line camp. A slit eyed, frost blackened man who staggered a little when he walked. The two cowpunchers stared hard at him.

"Peter Peralta's in bad shape. Broke a laig. His missus is dyin'. I'm ridin' fer a doctor. One o' you boys git over there and look after things."

He wolfed some meat and beans and gave them a shot out of his jug. One of the cowpunchers was getting ready for the trip to Pete's. Sam Graybull climbed back into the saddle and rode on.

The storm had quit. The stars glittered like white sparks against the clear sky. The moon pushed up over the ragged ridges. Sam Graybull swayed a little as he rode, half asleep, half awake, back along the trail to town.

He took some tobacco and rubbed it into his eyes to sting them open. Now and then he took a drink from the jug. Not as big a drink as he wanted. Just enough to keep a man alive. That grub made a man sleepy. A paunch full of meat always made a man sleepy. Almighty hard luck that a man couldn't git off and lay down. For five minutes. Yeah. Five hours. Be froze stiff as a stick. Hadn't he froze his feet thataway? Wouldn't he a-died there only Pete come by? Hell, he was payin' Pete back right now. A man paid his debts thataway. Took guts, too. But when a man's got one friend on earth, he'd be a hell of a kind of man not to lend a hand. It took guts. Somethin' Pete didn't have. Pete was a chicken hearted cuss. With his wife and his fiddle. Never taken a chance. Never would get nowhere. Like a cow pasture. A muley cow. Well, no man had ever sawed Sam Graybull's horns. No fence made ever held him. No jail, neither. Never bin ketched. Them as tried it had some hard luck. Have a drink. Damn that cork. A man's hands stiff and numb. There she comes. Good whisky. Thawed a man's belly. Fightin' whisky.

Sam Graybull's laugh grated on the silence of the winter night. There'd be fightin' a-plenty if a man run into that fool posse. Sam took a beaded buckskin pouch and put into it the note to the doctor. Then he fastened the pouch around his neck outside his coat. He moved with a dogged, sluggish precision. Like a machine that needs oil. He lost one of his mittens. The right mitten. He put the other mitten on his right hand, leaving the left one bare. Sam Graybull's right hand was his gun hand.

Out of the hills and onto the main road to town. Daylight now. Sleepy. Dozing in the saddle. Ridin' that horse like he owned him. Payin' off the only debt he owed to his only friend.

Yonder was Beaver Crick. Old gray wolf a-comin' outa the bare willers. With a belly full of meat, headin' fer a safe place to sleep it off. Sam never killed a wolf. Hell, he was a wolf, hisself. A he-wolf. A killer. No rabbit, like Pete Peralta, Pete, whinin' over a busted laig.
What'd he do if he had a .30-.40 slug in him and had to gouge it out with a jacknife? Sam Graybull had done that.

What's a-comin' yonder? Horsebackers. A dozen er more. Posse men. Time fer a drink. A big'n this time. No nibble. Bin' holdin off. Waitin'.

"Here's lookin' at you boys!" Sam Graybull's hoarse voice carried a note of triumph. "Here's lookin' at you acrost gun sights!" And he left the fiery stuff gurgle down his throat.

A rifle bullet whined past Sam Greybull's head. He taunted the marksman with a yell of derision and, tossing aside the jug, jerked his carbine and rode at a run straight for the men.

A hail of bullets met his rush. Sam Graybull's horse somersaulted, shot between the eyes. Sam tried to kick his feet from the stirrups. Too late. Horse and man crashed together. A dull pain shot through the killer's leg. That leg was pinned under the dead weight of the horse. Bullets spatted and droned. Sam Graybull emptied his carbine. Two of the posse felt the searing sting of the outlaw's bullets. Sam pulled his six-gun - the .45 that had taken deadly toll of human life. His thumb fanned the hammer.

"Come an' git it! Come on, you red necks!"

Black lips bared from tobacco stained teeth. Slit eyes swollen almost shut. It took guts.

Something white hot stabbed Sam Graybull's chest. He hardly felt it. Above the flat spat of rifles in the dawn, sounded the mirthless laugh of Sam Graybull. A laugh that sounded like the death rattle. Thumbing the hammer of an empty gun. Then the weary head dropped back into the snow. Sam Graybull, killer, was dead.

The last of the whisky gurgled out of the uncorked jug into the trail.

Hw must have got drunk, blind drunk, and lost his way."

"The sheriff pulled the dead outlaw clear of the horse. Grimly triumphant, the grizzled old officer examined the body of the killer. Then he opened the pouch and found the note.

As he read it, there in the sunrise of that winter morning, the warm glow of victory chilled. He turned to a man who carried a small black bag instead of a gun.

"This is for you, Doc. You're wanted down on the river." He handed over the note. Then he turned to his men.

"Handle Sam easy, boys. He come back a-purpose, to do the only decent thing he ever done in his life. Pete Peralta's wife is about to have a baby. Sam Graybull come to fetch Doc. Handle 'im easy."

The sheriff and Doc Steele rode along the trail together. Doc read aloud the postscript to Pete Peralta's note.

"The bank money is in a sack under the hay at my cabin. What bounty there is on my hide goes to Pete Peralta. If the kid's a boy, name him Graybull. Use the bounty money to educate him. So long" -Sam Graybull

And so it was that Doc Steele brought into the world a boy named Graybull Peralta. Some of the A.E.F. will remember him as Captain Graybull Peralta, the fighting chaplain of the ­th Division, made up of men from the cow country. He was killed in action in the Argonne. In the pocket of his blouse was a bullet-drilled, blood-soaked Bible. In his hand was a bone-handled six-gun with six notches filed on its age-yellowed handle.

Major Steele, who found him, gently removed the empty gun from the dead captain's hand. He looked with memory-misted eyes at the face of the fighting parson. The bared lips, the swollen slitted eyes.

"Handle him gently, men," he told the stretcher bearers. "Gently, as we handled his father twenty years ago. May the son of Sam Graybull find fat meat in the Shadow Hills!"

And they were too busy, those stretcher bearers, to wonder at the queer words of the white haired surgeon.