by Wesley Tallant
In the spring of 1838, Jake Hardy walked down the dirt road of Bent’s Fort, a small trading settlement in the Colorado territory. Dust from the wagons and horses hung in the air like a light fog. Shopkeepers stood in the doorways of their stores as customers looked over their goods.
Other times, when he came to town, it was to buy supplies. Coffee, sugar, salt, flour, gun powder, and rifle balls, but not today.
Today was a different reason for coming to town. Today, he was needing to go see the doctor.
He had only been to the doctor twice in his nearly forty five years, once when he was born, and when his best friend accidentally shot him while hunting in his teenage years back in Kentucky. That rifle ball still gives him trouble.
But Jake was having pain in his stomach and none of the known Indian or mountain cures seemed to help. Often it was so bad that he couldn’t sleep at night.
Jake was as tough as they come in this area of Colorado. Many people said there was no man tougher. He stood six feet two inches tall and was so broad across the shoulders that some people said that you needed a horse to get from his left side to his right.
He was well known in the area for his shooting and trapping skills, although he never bragged about it. He only shot and trapped enough to get by. “Never kill more than you can eat,” was what he would tell Smiley Johnson when he brought his few furs in for trading.
Smiley often told him that he was so good at trapping that he could make a lot more money if he would bring in more furs. But Jake was happy with his life the way it was. “Why complicate things with money?” was his general response.
Since Doc Wright’s office was above the Buffalo Head saloon, Jake thought that he’d stop in for a drink before going up to see him. He waved to some of the people that he knew and walked up to the bar and laid his rifle on it.
It was a Kentucky Long Gun that he had had made especially for him before he left Kentucky fifteen years earlier. Many of the guns that were mass produced were smooth bore muskets. The more expensive custom made guns had rifling in the barrels for more accuracy. They were called rifles. Jake had been willing to pay extra for this feature.
Most rifle stocks were made of walnut or some other dark wood, but Jake had this one made from a white oak tree that had been hit by lightning. The gunsmith said that white oak was not as hard a wood as walnut and could possibly warp over time and throw off the aiming point. Jake told him to make the barrel thicker and weld a rod to the bottom of it for further strength. This rod would work like the keel on a boat, making it straight and stiff.
When the barrel was mated up to the white oak stock, the result was one of the finest rifles that the gunsmith had ever made. When he demonstrated it to Jake, he put a rifle ball through the center of an ace of spades playing card at one hundred yards. Jake was so pleased with the rifle that he had an ace of spades carved into the stock and paid the gunsmith double his asking price.
Since coming west, his reputation for being able to use it had only grown. Many people admired the rifle and some had even tried to steal it. One rich fur trader had even paid two men five hundred dollars to steal it. When they found out what he wanted stolen, and who to steal it from, they took his money and left town.
Jake was in deep thought over his glass of whiskey when a tap on his shoulder startled him. He turned with a jerk, instinctively grabbing for the rifle with one hand and the big hunting knife in his belt with the other hand.
He turned to find himself facing a rather large man, with a dark beard and long hair. A leather hat sat on his head and a blue cotton shirt covered his wide shoulders.
“You must be Jake Hardy,” he said and stuck out his hand for Jake to shake.
Jake looked at his hand and then his face. “What if I am?” he asked.
“My name is Bill,” he said. “Don’t know my last name as my folks were killed by ‘Injuns’ when I was only three. Some folks traveling west found me and raised me. When they asked me my name, all I knew was Bill, so that’s what they called me. For over forty years now that’s been the only name I had or needed.”
“And this is important to me, how?” asked Jake.
“I thought that you might like to know something about the man that is about to take that rifle from you is all,” Bill answered.
Jake’s grip on the knife got tighter and the saloon got dead quiet. Men at the bar and sitting close to the two backed away.
“Several men have tried before and regretted it,” Jake said between his gritted teeth.
“No, no, no,” said Bill, holding his hands up to Jake. “I didn’t mean that way.”
“Then what way do you mean?” asked Jake, only slightly easing his grip on the knife.
“A shooting contest,” said Bill. “I got a brand new Sharp’s buffalo gun that I’ll put up against it in a fair match of five hundred yard range.”
“I haven’t ever had to shoot over three hundred yards before,” said Jake. “Any further is just extra walking to get to your kill.”
“Well I was only being fair to you,” said Bill. “This Sharp’s rifle was made to shoot for a thousand yards.”
“If it can shoot so far, why do you want mine?” asked Jake.
“That rifle has a story behind it, a legend if you will,” said Bill. “The man who owns that rifle could be famous some day.”
“But I don’t want any fame or fortune,” said Jake.
“But I do,” said Bill. “And that rifle and the story of how I outshot you for it can give me that.”
Jake thought for a bit, looked Bill up and down, and felt the hush that was in the saloon. Every person in the saloon had his attention focused on the two.
“Tell you what,” said Bill. “I’ll even give you five practice shots before the match and I’ll only take two.”
“Sounds fair,” said Jake. “But right now I’ve got to go upstairs and see Doc Wright. When I get through with him, if you still want to try it, meet me on the street that leads south out of town. There’s a good size field there so no one can get hurt.”
“Deal,” said Bill and again he stuck out his hand for Jake. Jake just looked at him, drank the rest of his whiskey, grabbed his rifle and left.
Return to Ramble House Page