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Dutch Fred’s Last Stand

Dutch Fred was a curiosity of a man, containing within himself all of the things that usually marked a villain and a hero out in the Old West. By day, he was a miner—well-respected and honest to a fault. The other men who worked alongside him in the hills around Florence deferred to him, trusting his keen mind and his reliable gut to see them through all the troubles that gold mining dug up. They’d called him ‘Chief’ as a joke, at first, but before long, the irony trickled away, and the name stuck. Whilst even the best of miners could get rowdy when they came down into town to spend their dust, he kept his composure well enough that he was the one the sheriff called on to help settle brawling partners down. Yet, he was not all saint and no sinner. He drank just as much as any other man to come fresh from the mines, and he gambled a good deal more than most. Worse yet, for his reputation among the townsfolk, he won far more often than he lost, no matter how much whiskey he was plied with.
A man like that, standing taller than those around him, was sure to attract attention. With attention, came the petty rivalries and fury of less successful men who couldn’t hold their whiskey or their faro cards as well as Dutch Fred.
Oregon of the 1860s was a place for hard men—men of ego, who couldn’t be put off with a clap on the shoulder or a smile. Every loss was an affront to those proud men, and that affront needed to be answered with blood. Many a night, Dutch found himself out in the street with his fists raised up against someone who’d pushed hard enough against his good temperament that even he felt the need to respond in kind, which was when his detractors ran directly into their next problem. The man fought like a modern Hercules. Most brawls ended with his opponent in the horse’s trough and him without a hair out of place on his head. He could box and wrestle like he’d been born in the canvas ring, and a lifetime of hard labour in the Gold Rush had made him as strong as an ox. The men who hated him couldn’t find their vengeance through straightforward means. In the eyes of the community, might made right, so Dutch Fred was surely the righteous one in every one of his many arguments. Violence was the law of the land, and violence had found every one of Fred’s enemies to be wanting.
Good church-going folk might have turned their eyes away when he passed them in the street, but the law of man was thin on the ground out here, and the law of God demanded that any man that turned the other cheek to be struck again was even thinner. The fact of the matter was, he was as personable as anyone could have hoped for in a miner, and there were a great many places in the West where a man like that could bully a whole town into submission instead of just stepping in and out of the saloon for a late-night brawl with folks that were already entirely undesirable. He wasn’t quite a folk hero, but he wasn’t the kind of vagabond bandit that he could so easily have been if his worse nature had ruled him.
In the dark of night, when they were trying to justify their failure to themselves, they told themselves that he kept his hold over the hearts and minds of Florence by virtue of his softness. A real man would fight to kill. A real man would assert his will instead of letting life roll on without interruption. Dutch Fred was soft. His back might have been straight, his fists might have been bloody, but on the inside where it mattered, the man lacked the iron that they felt sure they all possessed, however rusted it might be.
Boone Helm wasn’t so soft. He didn’t let his worse nature rule him by choice; he simply didn’t have a better nature to appeal to. By the time he came riding into Florence, he already had a reputation so foul that grown men flinched at his name, and his time in town wasn’t going to be making him smell any sweeter. He hadn’t made it as far as the saloon when he was set upon by the worst men of Florence and hauled off into seclusion in one of the outlying ranches, where he could be plied with whiskey and lies far from the sight of anyone who might have noticed who he was associating with.
Violence is the law of the land. Might makes right. All these unspoken rules of the frontier made a man like Boone into a valuable commodity. It wasn’t the first time his penchant for killing had found him work, and he’d even been tempted many a time to go and sign up with the Confederate Army and make his hobby into an honest living. But even the Grey Coats had a limit to the extravagances they’d accept in their troops, and he was so far over that horizon it was a wonder he hadn’t come all the way around to it again. A bit of looting and rape in the line of duty was tolerable, but they had no love for career criminals, bandits, and outlaws, treating them like the plague on the land that they were. As outlaws were to normal men, so was Boone Helm to the outlaws.
Honour and camaraderie still meant something to men living outside the law, probably more than they meant to civilised men living safely within the confines of society, but whatever limits they might have placed on themselves to remain human and whole, Boone had breezed right by them in pursuit of his goals. It made him the perfect tool for what the wicked men of Florence had planned, but it also made him volatile—a double-edged sword as likely to come back and cut the one trying to swing him at a foe.
As it turned out, those angry men who’d lost face to Dutch one time too many were in luck. Boone took kindly to being feted by the worst degenerates of the town, knocking back whiskey and chattering away about his adventures through the years to a somewhat more sober and horrified crowd. He spoke of things too horrible to even contemplate with the kind of levity another man might use to talk about a haircut. Other people in his stories were little more than gristle that he’d chewed up and spat out. The fake smiles never slipped, but when his back was turned, there were a few panicked looks between the conspirators. In the abstract, this had sounded like a great plan, but now that they were trapped in a confined space with the man and the smell of the man, he seemed less and less like a good bet.
When Dutch Fred came into the conversation, it was just as Boone had finished rattling through a list of complaints about the few folks who’d crossed him yet were still walking the Earth more or less intact. They mentioned their gripes with him, playing them down, and talked at length about the kind of man that he was—soft-bellied but big enough to have the run of a little town like this. They planted the seed of murder in Boone’s ear. If a man were to kill Dutch Fred, he’d likely have the run of the town until the law came through— not just some nowhere on the frontier, but a rich mining town worth more than its weight in gold dust, with whores and liquor to match.
Boone mulled this over as he chewed his tobacco and sipped his whiskey, buying none of their stories but considering his options all the same. ‘Man like that could prove to be a whole mess of trouble. Seems like if this town is as rich as y’all are telling me, there’d be at least one right-minded man putting up money to see that Dutchman put to dirt’.
With their initial attempts at trickery all but abandoned, the men did a quick whip around to raise funds. Anything over a dollar would have been enough to tempt Boone—they came up with over five in pocket change, payable on delivery. Still blind drunk and simmering with the same black-hearted rage that always drove him, Boone shook some hands and headed out into the rapidly dimming evening to complete his trek into town. Nobody even considered offering him a ride. Every minute in the odious man’s company, there was a danger that his wild temper might swing around. When he dipped out of sight, they locked the door behind him.
The middle of Florence was a warm and inviting place, filled with freshly whitewashed buildings aglow with torchlight and a dirt street paddled so flat by the miners’ mules that you could have rolled a ball across it without interruption. If Boone Helm was the ugly side of the Wild West, this was the pretty face that America would want you to remember, the one that spaghetti westerns and Hollywood would try to spread around the globe in centuries to come—romantic, awash with Southern hospitality and gunslingers doing the right thing in the face of black-hatted villains. A beautiful dream that Boone Helm would turn into a nightmare without a second thought.
Dutch Fred was settled in his usual spot at the faro table, gambling lightly and drinking heavily. He didn’t even trouble himself to turn his head when some drunk came barging into the saloon, bellowing at the top of his lungs. Even when the shouting started to take the form of a stream of insults being flung his way, he took his time setting his cards face down on the felt. This was hardly the first time some young buck had barged into his game looking to make a name for himself, but the stillness of his drinking buddies told Fred that there was more afoot than just the racket this boy was making. He turned in his chair, nice and slow so that he could take a look at the man waving his revolver around and baying for his blood. When they eventually locked eyes, Boone snarled out, ‘You and me, Dutch. Let’s git to the street and settle this like men. You’ve spent enough time shovelling dirt. It’s long past time somebody shovelled some on top of you’.
The sight of Dutch Fred rising from his chair was enough to give most men pause, and the Bowie knife held in his white-knuckled grip would have stopped the rest in their tracks, but Boone Helm wasn’t most men. His crooked gash of a mouth twisted into something like a smile at the sight of the huge man. ‘That’s it, boy, come get what’s coming to you’.
Helm’s words were slurred, but they were clear enough to set Dutch in motion across the room. Both men were drunk, both had their blood boiling, and both of them were armed. There was no telling which way the fight would go.
In a wave, the other patrons of the bar washed over them, bearing both wrestling and raging men to the ground and beating the weapons from their hands. There was a world of difference between Dutch knocking a few teeth out of a cheeky boy and a bloody brawl in the middle of the saloon, and the people of Florence weren’t having any of the latter. With both men disarmed, the gun and knife were turned over to bartender for safekeeping.
The bellowing and roaring died down not long after when it seemed that even Boone’s litany of insults and curses was at its end. He dragged himself free of the crowd and staggered back. Now that the two of them were standing and his pistol was long gone, Boone was giving some second thoughts to the fight he’d just picked.
Dutch Fred was a giant of a man. Boone was no slouch in that department himself—he’d lived a hard life that a weaker man wouldn’t have survived—but that hard life had taken its toll, too. Bouts of starvation had stripped the muscle from beneath Boone’s sun-beaten skin, while Dutch had been sitting around campfires eating well on the fruits of his labours. There wasn’t a doubt in Boone’s mind that he was meaner—just that he might not get the chance to bring that meanness to bear.
In a place so awash with overinflated egos and ever-present pride, it was a rare sight to see a man swallowing that pride. Rarer still to see a man like Boone Helm, known to all the world as a savage and wild man, do it. Yet, that night, the drinkers of the Florence Saloon saw just that. His words came slurred by whiskey but clear enough for every man there to understand. ‘Sorry, Dutch. I was very rude right then. That was some unsavoury-like conduct. I’ve been at the whiskey all night, and I ain’t meaning anything by it’.
As apologies went, it was hardly sincere, but it was still far above and beyond what anyone might have expected. All eyes turned towards Dutch to see how he would respond, whether he’d be the bigger man or take their disagreement to the street. He let out a huff of breath and settled back onto his throne, still the undisputed king of Florence. ‘I’d rather play cards, anyway’.
Boone turned tail and headed back out into the dark of night, without a single friend to comfort him, while Dutch held court and the whole town was chattering about what had just happened. Each time the story grew with the telling. Their local legend had stared down one of the hardest killers in the West without breaking a sweat or raising his hands. All night long, it did the rounds until Boone Helm was a giant of a man bristling with shotguns, and their dear old Dutch was bare-handed and disarmed the thug with a slap and a harsh word.
It was almost a disappointment when Boone came slinking back into the bar a few hours later, wet with the morning dew, and looking a lot worse for wear now that he was starting to sober up. Dutch eyed him carefully as he made his way to the bar, but he made no objection. As far as he was concerned, the matter was settled, and there was no need to go bringing it up again and prodding at the man’s wounded pride. Still, the bar’s other patrons couldn’t take their eyes off this giant of a legend brought low.
Boone Helm looked much like any other man, a little bigger and a little more haggard, but not just any sort of legend. He seemed to be shrinking before their very eyes as he calmly made his way to the bar and politely asked for his revolver back, as he had business to attend to and wouldn’t be back in town. ‘I promise I’ll go quiet’.
Whatever fire the whiskey had put in his belly was long gone now. Boone was deflated and defeated. The bartender didn’t even look askance at Dutch Fred before he gave Boone back his gun with a sympathetic grimace. It was a hard thing to swallow down all your rage and pride as that man had done. To do what was right, even when your blood was up, took more courage and composure than any of his regular customers could have mustered.
Boone took his gun back and thanked the bartender politely. Then, he turned to leave without even a hint of shame. That really should have been a warning sign for the folks watching him. His shoulders lost their hunch; his gaze rose up off the floor until he was looking right at Dutch Fred—the man who’d shamed him. The revolver stopped its journey towards his holster and sprang back up again.
The first shot went wide, clipping the arm off Dutch Fred’s chair in a shower of splinters. Deathly silence filled up the room. There was no more honky-tonk playing and no more chatter, either. All eyes were locked on the larger-than-life players in the tragedy unfolding before them.
Dutch rose up to face the would-be assassin with a sneer on his face. He crossed his arms across his chest and stared Boone down. The man clearly believed in his own legend. He believed that he could do the impossible things that the saloon stories had ascribed to him. When the first plume of gun-smoke had cleared, he opened his mouth to shame the animal Boone for taking pot-shots at an unarmed man.
With all the time in the world and nobody to stop him, Boone took careful aim with his second shot and placed it neatly through Fred’s heart. The big man collapsed like a puppet that had its strings cut. Dead before he hit the ground.
Boone blew the smoke from the end of his gun with a smirk then turned in a slow circle to face the crowd. ‘Anyone else want some of this?’
None of them did.
With the swagger back in his walk, Boone Helm headed out into the dark of night. They could have their stories, and their rumours passed back and forth in the barrooms across the breadth of the nation. They could puff themselves up and tear others down. All that mattered was how those stories ended, and once again, he’d shown that he was the one who decided that. Men could call him a monster, a traitor, a coward, or worse, but they could only call him those things behind his back. Their stories ended when he chose to end them.

The Kentucky Cannibal will be released on Amazon on 26th May 2020

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