Dust Off The Moon

"The past is never dead, it is not even past." - William Faulkner

Ya want to hear about Johnny Ringo? Most folks who come here do. I reckon it's 'cause Johnny was the last of that dyin' breed we called the gunfighter.

Sit down and wet yer whistle while we talk, won't ya? There ya go. Ain't as good beer as it was when I first come out here. Times have changed, ain't they? But then, I reckon ya wouldn't know that, bein' a young feller. Oh, but where was I? Johnny Ringo.

Seems just about everybody's heard o' him, but none really knew him. I did. Now, don't ya go believin' all ya read in them penny dreadfuls. Johnny never killed near as many men as they claim, nor did half the things people say of him. He wasn't no super human, neither. Most times he was pretty common ordinary. But there was somethin' a bit peculiar to him, to all that breed of man, I figure.

You wouldn't think it to see it now but Velardi was a wild town in them days, squashed under the thumb of some men we couldn't hope to fight. So we asked for a sheriff. It was me that suggested Johnny Ringo. I knew his reputation but I'd also heard tell of how he was tryin' so hard to give up the gun, and achin' to rest his bones a spell. I reckon every man deserves a chance to go straight if he's askin' for one. Not that Johnny would ever ask, mind ya. He wasn't a beggin' man. But when he came ridin' in and I saw the look in his eyes, I knew I'd done right.

Well he cleaned up this here town. Made it a good place to live, to raise a family and make an honest livin'. Nobody quite forgot what he'd been but they could move past it. After all, the merchants made more money than they had before, the womenfolk could walk down the street without fearin' some drunken cowboy would come after 'em, and the kids started goin' to school. Even the preacher saw more faces in them pews come Sunday. Doc Bardell made some less business off of bullet holes and autopsies but I never heard him complain.

More than that, Johnny had a way of changin' folks for the better. There's many a boy and girl in town that wouldn't be alive if it hadn't been for him. He'd ride fifteen miles in weather so cold ya froze to the saddle just to fetch Doc when someone was hurtin', and he paid social calls real gentlemanly, just to get to know the folks of his town.

And Case - God rest him - was nothin' but a drunk livin' with his daughter, Laura, and pinin' to run the store. The buildings still there, ya know, that little one down the street there.

Anyhow, Johnny gave Case a temporary job as his deputy, and got him out of the bottle and back on his feet. Ya'd never believe the change in the man. And Laura, she took a shine right to Johnny Ringo, and he to her. Why, ya'd hardly see a night with a full moon go by without 'em out sparkin', leanin' against each other in the buggy, horse ramblin' slow down the street as if he know'd he best not hurry.

Folks here figured there'd be a weddin' come spring. Why, my Martha already was plannin' on teachin' their kids when they was born and old enough for school. She had book learnin' I never had, ya see, and was the teacher here at the time.

They would have been quite the kids, too, with the name of Ringo and that hot blood in their veins, tempered by Laura's looks. Oh, she was a beauty, all right. I may be old and married but I ain't dead, and there wasn't a man in Velardi that didn't envy Johnny Ringo.

But things don't always work out the way ya think.

Case got shot up by a kid robbin' the store and Laura went back East. For a while we all thought she'd be back, and then a letter come sayin' she'd married a banker and settled down. It was all over between her and Johnny.

He wasn't quite himself for a spell. I reckon Cully pulled him back together 'cause the only times he smiled after that was when he was with him.

Who's Cully, ya ask?

Cully was...well, just about the best and worst thing that ever happened to Johnny Ringo. William Charles, Jr. I guess it don't sound familiar now but back when I first come out here William Charles, Sr. was quite a name. He could shoot the eye in a needle at thirty feet or better. Got himself backshot the year of the drought, as I recall. Never did find who done it, either. Some said it was Johnny Ringo, but I don't believe that. He weren't the kind to backshoot a man without a reason.

Anyhow, the boy was just nine when his pa died and some carnival folk took him in and raised him. Never had much book learnin' and he talked a kind of English ain't heard much - carny talk they called it - but he grew up proper. Came here with the Carny a few months after Johnny pinned on that hunk of tin framed over yonder on the wall.

Now that boy handled a gun like he'd been born with one in his paw. Either hand, backwards, upside down, ya name it, Cully could shoot it. And he heard tell that Johnny done in his pa and went gunnin' for him.

I still remember that day. The kid - why, he couldn't have been as old as you, young feller! - standin' there, both hands hoverin' over his guns, just itchin' for a fight. And Johnny prayin' he wouldn't kill him.

No, of course he didn't kill him! There wouldn't be no story if he had! He just put a slug in the kid's shoulder..a second after the boy warned him of the trap laid, a gun stashed in a camera. Saved his life.

Johnny made Cully his deputy. At the time I'd suppose there were a few raised eyebrows and waggin' tongues...if it weren't enough that an ex-gunfighter was the lawman now we had a deputy who was barely out of knee-high britches and had lived most of his life with carny folk. But Cully took to the job like a duck to water. Did a fine job of it, too.

Why that boy had a smile like sunshine, just lit up the room. Half the girls in town, includin' my Dulcie were in love with him, and none of the ma's and pa's even minded. Had a gentle way, that Cully. Real mannerly boy, too, "yes, ma'am" and "no, sir" and the rest. Didn't even like to kill nobody, shook him up bad if he had to. Johnny treated him like the little brother he'd never had, and they was close as fleas on a hound dog.

If somebody hurt Cully Johnny would rip them apart with his bare hands. Not that Cully approved of that, mind ya. I think they balanced each other out, the softness in Cully getting strong when Johnny was with him, and that fire in Johnny quenched some when Cully pulled him back from a fight.

Johnny never had much of anythin' and when he finally got somethin' he held onto it. Cully was about the closest thing to a family Johnny ever had.

I reckon you're guessin' by now that Cully ain't with us, no more. Most of the folk from them days passed on, or moved East. Them that's left just get older, like me.

It was around '88 if memory serves me right. Worst winter ever and if that wasn't enough three men held up the bank and killed the teller, so Johnny and the boy had to go after them. Hard times, that year. Cully had a wife then, and a baby on the way, but he went. Loyalty to Johnny and the job.

The way I hear tell they found the men somewhere up near the box canyon. Johnny got one, and one of the other two gutshot Cully.

I still can see the look on Johnny's face when he came ridin' in, holdin' the boy in front of him in the saddle, and Cully all covered in blood with his face the color of spilled milk, still breathin' but just a little.

He didn't live long. Oh, Doc Bardell tried his best, we all knew that, even Johnny. He took out the slug and stitched him up, sat with him and everythin'. Too much damage, he said. His insides were all tore up.

Johnny buried Cully up on the hill, way high beneath a tree. Wouldn't let nobody else dig the grave. He only said one thing, somethin' about a "seein' the sunrise like a picture in a gilded frame". Nobody knew what it mean but I reckon he did.

We didn't see Johnny much after that. We heard tell he went after the men who killed Cully, rode and walked hundreds of miles clear into Mexico. And, accordin' to the witnesses, and there was lots of 'em, Johnny beat them half senseless, made 'em tell which one killed the boy. And that man, nobody even knows his name, well, Johnny put six bullets and a shotgun shell through him. People said he kept on firin' even after the gun was empty.

He looked like the devil himself when he rode back in, the outlaws' carcusses flung over the saddles, and that horrible, black look in his eyes.

Nobody faulted him for what he did. The jury didn't even have the heart to convict him of murder, which I reckon it was. Neither man went for his gun. But we all had known Cully, and we said nothin'.

His widow went East. None of us knew how she got the money but somethin' tells me Johnny had been savin' a long time, back when he and Laura were plannin' to get hitched. She gave birth to a boy, healthy, strong. Spittin' image of his pa, I heard. She wrote to Johnny, but he never answered any of the letters. Kept the picture of the boy, though, close in his shirt pocket.

I reckon by now you're wonderin' about Johnny Ringo. Ya see, by that time the west that Johnny knew was dyin' fast and hard. No more Indians, gunfighters, outlaws, or rowdy towns. After a while nobody in Velardi even wore a gun 'cept Johnny.

They found Johnny beneath a tree one mornin', with his horse grazin' a ways off, and his boots tied onto the stirrups. He looked quiet in death, those lines finally out of his face. They say he killed himself, a bullet through the head what done it. I think he died long before that, though, died that winter when Cully did.

Johnny was a strange man. Never married, never loved anyone but Laura enough to want marriage. Never had any children, and nobody knew if he had parents or siblings still livin'. He never spoke of anyone. But after he died we found a box of money underneath his bed, all marked for Cully's widow and the boy.

Didn't leave much else, though. Just the gun and everybody decided to bury that with him. Seemed fittin'.

The town put up a marker over Johnny's grave. Not much of one - he wasn't the type - but a nice stone, with the name, date, a few lines from Chaucer. He loved to read, Johnny did. Even taught Cully how and he was readin' almost as good before he passed on.

About the boy? Well, it's true Cully never did get to see his son. But the boy grew up fine, even came back here to settle when he was full grown and his ma had passed on. He became a doctor, and a good one. Married and had two kids of his own. A bit of the carny in his blood, though, I figure, for he always got a look in his eyes when he heard that sort of music. Cully loved it so. Yes, I reckon his pa would have been right proud of him. Johnny, too.

Well, that's about all there was to it. Lookin' back it don't sound like much, just simple folks livin' out their lives, but Cully and Johnny and the rest were special. We won't see their likes again.

I reckon you're about ready to leave, son. I can talk an ear off a mule when I get to ramblin' about the old days. Is that your lady friend in the horseless carriage out there? Looks like a fine night for sparkin'.

Go on now, and don't forget to dust off the moon for all us old folks, won't ya?