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By J.L. Kramer
It is a name I remember well. It's almostlegendary to me. Po! Po the invincible, the killer of men, women, and children.
I met him only once, and that was ten years ago. One day shy of my nineteenth birthday. It is a day I shall never forget, a day I remember as if it happened yesterday.
He stood tall, nearly six foot three. His eyes were gun metal gray, hooded, masked by his black flat- brimmed and flat crowned hat. They were cold, hard, deadly eyes that took in all and missed nothing, eyes that bored into a man's very soul, robbing him of his nerve.
As he walked down the street, I watched his shiny boots glinting in the sun. His clothing, like his hat, was black and made of the finest material. His mustache was neatly trimmed, and if a man can fairly judge another man, then I would say his face was handsome.
The old timers called it the greatest pistol fight of all time, a fight between the two fastest gunmen
anywhere in the world, faster even than Hardin!
No... that I could not believe, for I, like so many, had heard of John Wesley Harden. I had
listened in awe to the stories of his exploits, his blazing speed with a pistol. Fast these men might have been, but they couldn't be the fastest in the world. I knew that no matter how good you might be, there was someone, somewhere, just a little better.
They stood in the center of the towns main street with twenty feet separating them. For a time then, a God awful time, nothing happened. They
just stood facing each other, the midday sun beating down upon their backs, then...
Then he spoke. It was soft, almost gentle and pitying. Everyone heard him in the silence, and though time has gone by, I still remember each and every word he said. They were melodic and aptly fit the time and circumstance. For a split second,
those words left me breathless.
"If you can pay the fiddler," Po said in a deceptively slow rhythm. "sing your tune. If not,
then I shall pay him, and ask that he play a sad tune over your fallen body, and I, Po, shall throw the first shovel of dirt into your grave."
Hands flashed and three shots rang out as one, blending and ringing against the mountain backdrop. I was awed, witness to the fight of all
time. My breath was coming in gasps, and I found myself kneeling in the dirt as my eyes took in the great Po. Po the invincible, killer of men, women and children.
Po stood there, tall and straight, with a smile upon his lips. His gun, still smoking after the silence returned, hung at his side.
Murmurs went through the crowd. Women, caught by the suddenness, thrill, and horror of the
moment, ushered their children away from the bloody scene. Men stepped gingerly into the street to gaze at the aftermath...
What led up to the fight?
It goes back a long time, perhaps even before I was born, but I will tell you what I know of the story. It traces back to two young men, one a planner and doer, the other a dreamer, drinker and watcher. One man was weak, the other strong, still there was something between them.
Josh Highland married the prettiest girl in all of Missouri. They were happy and did well together,
but Josh felt a calling. He heard a voice like so many others had heard, calling him west to see the far off mountains and lonely lands beyond.
A war, a great Civil war, was brewing. Blood would be spilled in Missouri because it was close to
the border, too near the line that divided those who would follow the South's dream of succession and those who would kill to preserve the union as it was.
Josh knew Missouri would be no place to raise a young boy of eleven, and no place for a decent woman to be. He was a practical man and would choose no side in the upcoming conflict. As far as he was concerned, both sides were in the wrong, so he asked his wife to follow his vision, his dream of seeing and living in the far off mountains.
It was a difficult decision for Rebecca Highland. She loved her husband with all her heart and soul, yet her family and all her friends lived in Missouri. When the country began to explode with violence and death though, she knew her husband
Westward they rode, and with them rode George Bexel. He was a big man of nearly six one and weighed upward to two hundred and twenty
At the age of twenty seven, he was considered by all to be a handsome man, yet Rebecca knew he was as shallow as a dried up irrigation ditch.
George thought only of himself, of his self-worth, self- importance, self-pride and self-
satisfaction. He knew he was a handsome man. He told himself daily. His twisted mind and inflated ego led him to believe all women wanted and needed him, even Rebecca Highland. He believed Rebecca had convinced her husband to go west, in hopes of
getting rid of him, so they could be together.
"After all," George chuckled to his shaving mirror. "who can tell what might happen in the wilderness?"
"Rebecca!" Thought of her rankled him. "Why didn't she wait for me? I told her I'd return for her."
George threw the mirror to the ground in anger.
When he had finally returned for her, he had found her married and heavy with Josh Highlands
At first, he had been outraged, later, he reasoned it all out with his self centered mind. "I
guess a woman has to do what she feels is best. A woman of her age needs to be married, to be taken care of by a man, or she is branded an old maid,
but why, damn her, why didn't she wait just a little longer? I know she wanted to be with me." His anger and hatred of Josh Highland grew with each
Rebecca Highland had no such thoughts of George Bexel. She loathed him, detested the very thought of being near him. He had tried to court
her, but she had seen through his good looks and neat appearance to his air of self importance. He was a fool, an arrogant fool, and the way he looked
at her made her feel dirty. Josh Highland was a good, responsible, generous man, and she loved him above all others.
What Josh saw in George Bexel, Rebecca could only guess, and though she mentioned once how she felt about George, Josh had merely shrugged his shoulders and told her, he'd take care of him, talk to him...
Eleven, almost twelve years. She had a son now and they were going west to find their future. For the most of those years, George had been
around but a little, now... now he was here again, traveling with them, staring at her with lustful eyes.
Day after long day, they traveled onward with Josh going about his business of insuring they ate,
were safely hidden from attack, and always planning.
Montana, was his goal, there or Idaho. He felt confident he could make peace with the Indians, then they would be safe.
If the war came, and Josh believed it would, there would be a market for horses and beef. He would buy cattle when they reached Dodge. Not too many, twenty head to start with. He already had the bull for the breeding. As for horses, he would round up wild horse, break them to saddle himself or with George's help.
George Bexel did his part as well, but often as not, he was sullen and moody, choosing to keep to himself whenever they stopped for rest or for the night. He was a man alone with his thoughts, his dreams and his secret desires. "To have Rebecca, to enjoy her love body, to taste of her womanly
As they traveled further, George's mood became blacker and his anger rose. "Damn it!" He cursed his luck, for there had not been one chance yet to kill Josh Highland.
Then one day out on the open plains, his opportunity came. His horse went down, pinning him beneath the dying animal. An arrow quivered in
George's shoulder and he found himself face to face with an Indian, fierce and horrifying, knife ready to take his scalp. Josh Highland came to his
rescue, standing over him and fighting off the other warriors.
The wild screams of the savages... those terrible and frightening animals retreated at last and the air returned to silence. Smoke from Josh's rifle drifted off on a light breeze and as he stepped away to check on Rebecca and his son, George
saw his one chance. His hand reached for the pistol that lay by his side, the trigger eared back, then the opportunity faded.
One chance and it was gone, replaced by wave after shocking wave of pain, and then he faded into oblivion. His mind lost to the black haze that engulfed him. His soul lost to a world of bitter dreams and memories.
George Bexel awoke to the sound of an ax ringing in the distance. All around him, everything
was strange. All but the smell of coffee and the woman who came to his side in answer to his soft moan. She was real, she was his woman.
"We made it, George, we're home." She said to him. "Josh has your cabin up and is starting on ours. Look, it's almost finished."
His hands started to take her, but footsteps sounded nearby. A boys faced appeared and looked down at him. He was a tall boy with sparkling blue eyes, a freckled face that spoke of
his mother, but he had his fathers strength and bulk.
George Bexel swore under his breath. "Damn him! Damn Josh Highland all to hell! Why did he have to bring this..."
"Papa says you're a lucky man, Mister Bexel. Says you should be dead by now. It ain't logical for a man hurt like you was and as sick as you were to live, but you're still with us even after three weeks of it." The boy said grinning. "Papa said you were
to mean to die, so we built your place first thing. When you're up to it, you can move right in. That ought to make you feel some what better, don't it?"
Days passed and soon George Bexel was up and about. There was no time or excuses to hang around because like the boy had told him, he could
move right into his new home.
Josh Highland proved to be a good builder, even George had to admit that when he saw the place they had constructed for him. He was quite a
salesman too. The first thing he did when they arrived in the little valley he had chosen to call home was to ride to the Indian's camp and make peace.
"Damn him!" Thought George Bexel. "One day... one day soon he would kill him and the bastard son as well, and then..."
Days passed into months, the seasons changed, and still George found no opportunity to be rid of Josh and the boy.
Josh Highland had planned well. With no trouble from the Indians their ranches took shape. Each man had an equally impressive spread. The thirty seven head of cattle Josh had bought along the way were augmented with two hundred and seventy head he bought from a rancher in Idaho
country. They had been bought cheap and paid for in gold.
"Well," George thought. "that's one more thing I will have. All I need to do is bide my time. Eventually Josh will slip up, and I'll find out where he gets his gold. After that..."
The eleven year old boy turned twelve, then thirteen. The ranches were doing well and paying for themselves. Josh Highland took on men to help with the trapping of wild mustangs and to help with the growing herd of cattle.
Fourteen, fifteen, the years slipped onward and the boy grew up to be a young man. The area became settled, and soon a town sprang up, opening new markets for the ranchers. Through it all, George Bexel became more and more sullen. His ranch reached it's ultimate potential, then slowly began to slide backward.
Seventeen, eighteen, the boy became a handsome young man who could hold his own against any of the top cowboys in the area.
George all but disappeared from the Highland life's. He spent his time drinking and gambling it all away, yet his hatred and lust festered with in him as he eyed the rich lands of the man who once saved his life. Not even Maxine Carter, the blacksmiths bitter wife, gave him any relief. She was a comfort in bed, but nothing more.
"Build it up, Josh! I'll have it all soon." He told himself, yet how did a coward kill his friend, the man who had saved his life all those years ago? "Yes," He reluctantly admitted to himself. "I'm a coward, but I'll still have it all!" But how, he wondered.
The answer came to him on the winds of saloon gossip. Po!
Po, the invincible, killer of men, women and children! George shuddered inwardly as he thought of the cold blooded killer. The man was ruthless and utterly without conscience, yet it was his chance to get rid of Josh Highland.
Through careful inquiries, George located the man he sought. A letter, sent with a man whom he trusted, was hurriedly written and dispatched. It was simple in context, but it said all that needed to be said. "I have money and am willing to pay for what needs doing."
The price would be high, but the treasures bountiful. He could have it all, start over and make something of himself. He'd be someone to be
respected, feared even! He would have his ranch, though it had gone to seed, his friends ranch, the wealth of his bank accounts and... and he could
have his woman after all these years.
The boy! He mustn't forget about the boy, he told himself, then laughed. Po would handle him as
well and it would cost him nothing. The boy would ride out to avenge his fathers death... He would try
and kill his fathers murderer and he would die too.
How long would he have to wait after it was finished? A month? No, it would have to be longer. Three months, six... a year? George needed money, he'd wait six months, then he would go to her. All alone, Rebecca would run to him, welcome him with open arms and he would take her like the beautiful woman she was.
"I'll win after all, just leave it to Po, Po the invincible, killer of men, women and children." A
smile touched George's lips as he let his mind dream the dream.
Yes, I remember it well. It is still as vivid today as it was back then. The dusty walk, the shine of
his boots, his soft voice so unsettling. The music of the words he spoke, and the gunfire that broke the
silence of the day.
Po stood tall and straight, a smile upon his thin lips. His gun hung by his side, still smoking after the silence returned. One step, two... a bright crimson showed at the corners of his mouth and then he fell and I knew the great, the invincible Po was no more.
Slowly his left foot straightened and all, I think all, heard his last breath escaping his lifeless body.
The other man, a tall rawboned youth with long sandy colored hair was down on one knee struggling to bring himself upright. One gun hung loosely, unfired, in a bloody hand, the other rested on his knee, cocked and ready for yet another shot, but there was no need.
When at last he arose, blood showing high upon his left shoulder, he reeled like a drunkard. Slowly, with sheer will power, he steadied himself and turning to the crowd that had witnessed the fight of all time, he spoke. "Find the fiddler, let him
play a sad tune for him and I, James Highland, shall throw the first shovel of dirt into his grave."
And what of George Bexel, the man who hired my fathers killer? Some said Indians caught him and killed him after they had had their way with him, but I never believed it. I saw the body.
It was me and some of the ranch hands who found him, who came upon the grizzly scene. He had been butchered, and whoever killed him did a thorough job of it and I am sure George Bexel suffered one hell of a painful death. It was almost enough to make me feel sorry for him, but then,
how could I?
The buzzards had found him before we did, What was left, we buried. It was too good for him... a man like him should have been left to the coyotes, but we weren't like him.
I found her in the ranch house the day after I found George's remains. There was a pistol lying
next to the chair she sat in. She was dead! I guess the loss of Josh, her husband and my father was too much for her to bear.
Curiously, though she shot herself just once in the head, she was completely covered with blood, some dried, some fresh. I never told anyone that, I just buried her next to the one true love of her life, Josh Highland.
And what of myself?
I called for the fiddler and asked him to play a sad tune over the body of Po. Then I, James Highland threw in the first shovel of dirt in his grave.
He lies under the stately old pine tree down by the stream that runs past the town, and upon his grave I carved these few words.
"Here lies Po, Po the invincible, killed by a mightier sword than his own. Youth! Eighteen hundred seventy three."
Yes, I remember it well. I sold the ranch, I was the Montana gunfighter, the slayer of the invincible. How could I run a ranch? I was hunted out by all the would be kings of the gun. I drifted, lost myself, for a time at least, yet I return here often to visit my parents and to sit and look down upon the man
who brought this curse to me. Po, Po the invincible, killer of men, women and children. The killer who kills no more.
"You cannot worry about that which you cannot control."