Western Wednesdays—OUTLAW LAWMAN by Paul Bagdon

Outlaw Lawman is a book that swept me up in the first chapter. The scene is set so perfectly, I felt as though I was there beside Bagdon’s enigmatic hero Pound as he rode into the unruly bordertown of Gila Bend, his true motives hidden from the reader, and perhaps even himself. The cast of characters that you meet in this excerpt only hint at the depth and complexity of the story to come.  If you want to feel the heat and the sweat, taste the dust in your mouth, hear the desolate sounds of an outlaw town, be transported to the Old West, then this is the book for you.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

I heard the baseball game before I even drew close to it: men whooping and yelling, guns firing, the occasional series of curse words that reached me even over the distance. A sign on a stout fence post told me I was in—or coming into—Gila Bend.

I topped an easy rise and looked directly down at the game. A fat man was at bat. The pitcher gave him a good throw, and the fat man swung hard and arced the ball over the pitcher’s head and into the outfield. It looked like an easy single, even though the heavy man waddled rather than ran. When he reached first base, the baseman swung at him, connected with his chin, and dropped him there in the dust, unconscious. A mixture of cheers and boos sounded as the fat man’s pals dragged him off to the side.

The runner who’d been on second base took off for third as soon as the fat man connected with the ball. The third baseman covered his base—blocked it, actually—and held a thick piece of a tree branch. The runner dove at the baseman, and the two of them rolled about in the dirt, raising a cloud of dust, punching, gouging, biting, and cursing. The runner managed to wrestle the club away from the baseman and beat him unconscious with it. At the same time, the runner who’d been on third was digging for home plate, running hard, knees pumping, head down, arms flailing. It was then that a loop sailed out from the group of observers. Whoever he was, he was one hell of a roper. His loop was small—exactly the right size to drop over the runner’s head and stop him very quickly—so quickly, in fact, that the wet snap of his neck was easily audible over the rest of the racket of the game.

If the baseball game was a fuse, the fight that followed was the explosion. Two masses of bellowing, drunken men met about midfield, swinging, kicking, and in some cases, shooting.

I’d seen lots of bar fights, more than a few gunfights where the loser ended up dead, but I’d never seen anything like this before. Baseball can raise a man’s ire, and a little pushing and maybe slugging is to be expected during a game, particularly when most or all of the players were drunk.

But damn: shooting a base runner? Snapping a fellow’s neck with a lariat? Anybody who threw a loop the way that cowboy had could have widened it a foot or so and made his catch around the runner’s middle.

My horse was getting antsy under me, catching the scent of the horses staked and hobbled down by the game. A slug whispered by my head, then another. A man never forgets that sound once he’s heard it, and I’ve heard it too many times to sit around and wait to hear it again. I heeled my good bay horse into a gallop, swinging back down below the rise, and made a big half circle around the baseball game. From there it was easy enough to follow wagon tracks and hoofprints to Gila Bend.

I swung off the tracks and rode a half mile or so out onto the prairie. The money in my saddlebags was in those waterproof canvas sacks banks and large mercantiles use. I triangulated a nice little rock outcropping with a pair of desert pines, moved some rocks around, and stashed my money. Then I went on back to the trail that led to Gila Bend.

The town looked like most of the little Texas towns of the time—splintered, unpainted wood buildings; hand-painted signs; and the usual array of businesses: a stable, a mercantile, five saloons, a restaurant, a furniture maker/embalmer/mortician, and what may or may not have been at one time a church. It’d been burned, but it looked as though some of the chairs inside may once have been pews.

There were two or three horses tied in front of each gin mill and a few men walking, going into the mercantile or a saloon. Every man I saw was carrying a sidearm, and some carried two.

Some of the men were wearing those big broad hats—sombreros—and I knew for an absolute fact that any cowhand, drifter, saddle-tramp gambler—any American at all—would prefer to have his head broiled over a campfire like chicken than wear one of those Mex hats.

Without being obvious about it, I looked more closely at some of the men under sombreros. I was certain that looking too long at any man in Gila Bend was a bad idea. There was no doubt the fellows were Mexicans.

I was real unclear as to where I was, Texas or Mexico. I figured that in a hellhole like Gila Bend, it didn’t much matter.

I put my horse up at the stable, had new shoes put on him all the way ’round, and paid in advance for a double scoop of crimped oats daily, plus all the good hay he wanted. That horse had done some hard and long traveling, and he more than deserved a respite, some good grub, and some time out from under the saddle.

I walked down the rutted street past the first saloon I came to. The beer and booze were singing out to me, but I kept walking. I was looking for a specific and recognizable man, and I knew I’d eventually find him.

I walked by what had once been a sheriff’s office. The front door was battered and broken and hung from its top hinge. It was riddled with bullet holes, too. I looked inside as I walked by. There was an overturned rolltop desk that was partially burned. A cut chain hung from what had obviously been a rifle cabinet. There was a Stetson on the floor near the desk with several bullet holes in it and flaking, dried blood around the holes. It’d probably been a fine hat at one time; Stetson didn’t make junk.

There’s always at least one of the bar-rags I was looking for in Texas towns; I figured Gila Bend would have a couple of them—Mexican or Texan—and perhaps three. They were hardcore drunks, who, since they were incapable of working and too stupid to steal, spent their days cadging or begging drinks. Sometimes they exchanged good information for a belt of redeye and a schooner of beer. Often the information was mindless babble or pure fabrication; once in a while it was good.

I almost passed a barber shop, but then took a couple of steps back and entered. A bath was thirty cents, which was kind of steep. The shave and the haircut came to two bits.

The barber was a surly oaf who smelled of pomade, talcum powder, and stale beer. Usually those fellows would talk your ear off about nothing, but this guy was an exception. He grunted every so often as he went about his work but said not a word. When we evened up, I added a nickel tip, which was customary.

The barber’s eyes opened wide in a parody of joyous surprise. “Hot goddamn!” he said. “Now I can buy me a few hundred acres of good land and a thousand head of prime, fat beef, an’ maybe even a runnin’ horse, an’ make yet more money!”

I took the nickel back from the counter and put it in my pocket. “Hey, Mr. …” he began angrily.

“Another word and I’ll step on your goddamn face real hard, you pile of shit,” I said. The barber snorted and glared but didn’t say anything.

I stood there a moment, trying to convince myself that doing what I had in mind made no sense at all. I couldn’t do it. There was a shelf behind the barber chair that held maybe ten or so bottles of various stuff—cologne and such. I drew and blew the living piss out of six of them. The barber had hit the floor and was curled into a ball like a dung beetle. I stood there while I reloaded and then went on my way.

There was a burned-out building next to the barber shop and the next business was a saloon with a broad, poorly lettered sign over its batwings that said BAR—DRINK.  Just outside was where the bar-rag latched on to me.

“Ahh, my good friend,” he slurred as he stepped in front of me from where he’d been standing just outside the saloon. The man was a textbook illustration of what constant drunkenness, dissolution, malnutrition, and general booze-generated stupidity could do to a fellow. The poor sonofabitch wasn’t worth the bullet it’d take to put him out of his misery.

“You looking for a drink?” I asked.

“I don’t generally imbibe spirits, but I see that you’re new in Gila Bend, and I’ll be pleased to join you—on you, of course.”

I was more than a tad astonished at how well this rummy spoke. I pushed through the batwings and held one side open for the man. As he passed me, I got a closer look at him. His hair was gray—he wore no hat—and it seemed to have fallen out in lumps, leaving deathly pallid patches of scalp behind. It seemed to me that he was too gaunt to live; his wrists were like sticks, and his neck was so thin that his Adam’s apple appeared to be the size of a ripe melon. He wore a work shirt that at one time must have belonged to a shorter man—the cuffs barely passed his elbows. His coveralls—large enough to accommodate three men his size—hung from his shoulders like drapes. His feet were bare and horrible to look upon; the nails of his toes were long and a vomit-yellow hue, and the grime on his ankles and the upper length of his foot would be impossible to remove. It was part of his flesh, part of his being. The stench of his body was bad; I gagged as he walked past me. He smelled dead—long dead.

I picked up two schooners of beer, two shot glasses, and a bottle of Kentucky bourbon and carried all that on a tray to where my new colleague was sitting at a table. “My name’s Pound,” I said. “Yours?”

“I’m called Calvin,” he said, “although various bartenders and others have different names for me—bad names, names that sometimes hurt.”

I couldn’t help asking, “Then why not crawl out of the bottle and do something with yourself?”

Calvin poured a shot with a trembling hand, spilling as much booze on the table as he got into the shot glass. He drained his schooner in one long, gulping, gasping swallow. He followed the beer immediately with the shot. “’Cause I don’t want to,” he said. “Bein’ a bar-rag suits me. It ain’t the noblest of professions, but it works for me.”  He refilled his shot glass with considerable less shaking this time and dumped it down, smacking his lips as if he’d just had a bite of a crisp, tart apple. “I suspect you’re looking for information—or did you set up drinks to ask me the name of my tailor?”

I poured myself a shot. “Tell me about Gila Bend,” I said.

“It got started maybe twenty years ago when a fat vein of silver was struck. The vein didn’t play out, neither. It’s a little harder to get to these days, but she’s still there. ‘Course that strike brought lots of others: miners, gamblers, men running from the law, drifters still wearing Reb uniforms, whores, gunfighters, storekeepers, saloons, an’ so forth, just like any burg built on gold or silver does.”

“Why’d they name it Gila Bend?”

“’Cause there was a gila setting right where a miner hit the strike.”

“Let me ask you this: are we in Texas or Mexico?”

“Calvin laughed. “Texas—not that it matters much. You could throw a stone from here to Mexico.”

“What about the law here?”

Calvin grimaced and spat on the floor. “Shit,” he said, “you might have seen the sheriff’s office. He was the fourth one in less than three years. Got shot off his horse from a hundred or better yards away by a fella with a Sharps. The one before him was a little slower on the draw than a shootist who’d moved in. The one before that…well, I think he got a knife in his heart trying to break up a fracas in a saloon. I disremember what happened to the one farthest back, but you can wager he didn’t die from falling out of bed and cracking his head.”

I handed Calvin a pair of ten-cent pieces and had him fetch a couple more beers for us. When I sat down at the table again, Calvin said, “There’s a fellow by the name of Billy Powers. Billy runs Gila Bend.”

“How so?”

“It just happened, I guess. There’s paper out on him and most of his men. They rode in and decided to stay. None of them have much use for Mexico or Mexicans, so they didn’t care to cross over. There’s a bunch of Mexicans in Gila Bend, but they walk real quiet around Billy Powers.”

“What’s the paper on Powers for?” I asked.

“Murder and rape, robbery, the usual stuff. He’s a hired-gun type. He’d shoot his grandmother if the money was adequate.”

“Sounds like a swell guy.”

Calvin laughed, but it was a bad laugh, one with no mirth behind it.

“There’s paper out on maybe half the men in town, Pound. And the other half just haven’t killed or robbed enough to rate posters.”

“How’d this Powers come to take over the town?”

“Well,” Calvin said, “four—maybe five—years ago, Billy beat the piss out of a man who was feared by everyone in Gila Bend. This was a fistfight in a saloon, and it didn’t take but a minute or so.”

I nodded.

“The very next day, Billy was in a saloon where he fancied a whore. He wrestled her clothes off—everything she was wearing—in front of a packed saloon, mind you. Then he slapped her on the ass and carried her upstairs. In a minute she was screaming in pain. Somebody ran for the sheriff, and one of his men warned Billy. They met on the street in front of the saloon. Billy put three slugs in the sheriff’s chest before the lawman’s pistol ever cleared leather.”

I rolled a smoke and pushed my sack of tobacco and my papers across the table to Calvin. He rolled a cigarette that looked every bit as good as one of those fancy-ass store-boughts. He looked longingly at the sheath of papers and the sack of tobacco in front of him as I struck a lucifer and lit both our smokes.

“Keep ’em,” I said. “I got plenty more.”

His full smile showed how very few teeth he had, and the ones left were more brown than yellow, slanted like very old headstones in an ancient cemetery. His gums were a godawful greenish-pink that made my gorge rise hot and stinging in the back of my throat. I had to look away.

I took a long suck of beer. “Why doesn’t the law come in and tear this whole goddamned place down?” I asked.

“’Cause it ain’t worth the time nor the soldiers who’d be killed—and there’d be a whole lot of them.”

I needed to think for a time, and then I said, “You’re either diddling me or running some sort of a scam. I don’t like either choice.”

“I don’t know what you’re…”

“Talking about,” I finished Calvin’s sentence. “It’s this: your language. Your use of words swings from that of a drunken cowhand to that of a college professor and back, often in the same sentence. What’s going on here?”

Calvin poured us each another shot of whiskey. “I was once an instructor in a school in Massachusetts,” he said. “It was a good job, but I drank my way out of it. Then I came West and taught at a school in a town called Hempton’s Stop, and boozed my way out of that one, too. Somehow I ended up here after a couple of years.” He looked at me quizzically. “What was it that indicated to you that I—”

I interrupted again. “Indicated? How many cowhands or hardcore drunks would use that word?”

“I guess maybe you’re a college man, too,” he said.

“I was I was a drunk, too, almost as bad as you. Hell, I’d drink stale beer out of a hog’s ass.”

“But you beat it.”

“Hell, no. I still want more all the time. But a few years back I partnered up with a good man and we robbed banks and I got the booze under control.”

Calvin stared at the wall behind me. After a moment, he said, “When I was a kid I had this friend named Abimilech.”

“Abimilech?”

“It’s a biblical name. Anyway, Abe’s father made ’shine. We were maybe twelve years old when we took a few belts and got silly and clumsy. But the difference was that Abe had had enough, puked, and passed out. I wanted more—a whole lot more. And…well…I was off and running from that day forward.”

We were silent for a long moment. Finally, Calvin said, “I guess you’ll be riding out later today.”

“No. I figured I’d spend a couple days here, rest up my horse.”

“Well,” Calvin grinned, “this is one place the law won’t catch up with you.”

For some reason that peeved me a bit. “What makes you think I’m running from the law—or from anyone else?”

“No offense, Pound. But Gila Bend isn’t what you’d call a quiet town to relax in.”

“I’ve been in a slew of places as bad or worse than this dung heap,” I said. “Either a fast gun and his boys kill the lawman and take over a town, or they string up a couple of the townsfolk to keep the others in line. And I’m still sitting here, aren’t I?”

“Sure,” Calvin said. After a moment he added, “Feisty, ain’t you?”

“I’m just passing through,” I repeated. I pushed back my chair and stood.

Calvin cackled. “Passing through? To where? Hell? No need to leave, Pound. C’mon, sit down.” His hand was wrapped protectively around the whiskey bottle, as if I were about to snatch it from him. I thought it over for a moment and then sat down.

“This Powers,” I said. “How many men does he have here?”

“Maybe thirty to forty. The number kind of varies actually. Some can’t take Powers’s craziness and ride out at night—and keep ridin’, I guess ’til they run their horse’s legs down to nubs. Then there’s Powers’s shoot-outs, too. That drops a few men each year.”

“Shooting contests?”

Calvin grimaced. “Powers chooses a couple of men at random and puts them out in the street facing one another at about twenty-five to thirty paces. The men draw—they know they have no option, no way out. Powers stands there with a .30-30 just to make sure no one hightails it.”  Calvin cleared his throat. “The one who’s alive at the end wins.”

“Powers has no argument with these two men?”

“Nope. He’ll get liquored up an’ something will piss him off and he grabs a couple of fellows and drags them outside. No reason at all for it, Pound. Lots of times the guys are friends. That’s sad.”

“Couldn’t the ones in the street both turn on Powers and blow his ass off?”

“That’s been tried. The rest of the group blew the two men to pieces. That’s one of the rules.”

The complete and utter depravity of a man who’d demand a gunfight to the death between two others who more than likely had nothing at all against each other stunned me. Even Bloody Bill and his lunatics didn’t quite reach Billy Powers’s depth of killing simply for the sake of killing. I looked at the bottle in front of Calvin. It was about two-thirds gone. I filled my shot glass. “If I got jammed up in a situation like that, I’d take out the man I was drawing against and then empty my pistol into Powers. If his boys shot me to pieces after that, I’d die with a smile on my face.”

Calvin nodded. “That makes good sense. I’ve often wondered if Powers’s gang saw him dead and bleeding in the street, whether they’d scatter like a bunch of puppies in a thunderstorm. Powers is what holds them together, and without him they’d be nothing—and they know that.”

“They’re nothing already,” I said.

“Yeah, but they have a leader.”

“Right, a leader who’s a homicidal maniac.”  I stood again. “Thanks for the information, Calvin,” I said. “It was appreciated. You keep that bottle.”  I reached into my vest and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. “I don’t want to insult you, but maybe you could use a…loan…of ten dollars?”

Calvin laughed his annoying cackle. “Insult me?  Hell, you can insult me all day long with them tens, Pound.”  He held out a grimy hand with enough crud under his fingernails to give a maggot the heaves. I’m a little ashamed of this—dirty or not, the guy was still a man—but I looked as if I was fussing in my vest with my right hand and turned away, heading toward the batwings, as if I considered our meeting and conversation over. I heard the grating cackle behind me.

I took a deep breath as soon as I stepped outside. The reek of tobacco smoke, spilled beer, sweat, and the essence of a gathering of long-unwashed men was pervasive, and it followed me like a foul and disgusting cloud until I was several steps away from the saloon. I glanced back and found that the cloud I imagined was real; smoke and stink billowed out the batwings.

It was coming dusk, and the softening light made Gila Bend appear almost pretty, like a rendering of a quiet Texastown by an Easterner. The pianos in the saloons began to tinkle almost melodically. A pair of men—hardcases from the looks of them—rode down the street toward me. I noticed that both of their horses were gaunt and hadn’t been groomed in a long time. As the men drew closer, I could see scabbed-over spur marks on the flanks of the animals.

The two men could just as well have been cut with the same mold. They slouched in their saddles, looking almost asleep, but their eyes missed nothing. One wore a pair of Colts in holsters on his hips, the other a single pistol on a hip but another strapped over his shoulder and across his chest.  Both riders could have benefited by being dragged through a sheep-dip. Each had perhaps a week’s growth of beard and greasy hair that hung past his shoulders in thick shanks.

They moved away to the side of each other as they approached me, which I didn’t like much. Close together, both could have been taken down by a good shootist, but spread apart, the man in the middle would die. Unconsciously, I pushed my coat back behind the butt of my Colt and let my hand linger there. The one on my right lifted the barrel of the .30-30 in his saddle scabbard a couple of inches, not pointing directly at me, but not far off, either.

We stood there for a full minute without moving, as if we were statues. Finally, I said, “Evening, gents. That cool breeze feels real good, doesn’t it?”

The one who answered—the man on the left—said, “Maybe it does, maybe it don’t,” in such a high-pitched, childish voice I had to bite the inside of my mouth to keep from laughing. My eyes dropped for a moment to his throat. An elevated, festering scar ran from one ear, under his chin, and almost to the other ear.

“Shaddup, Squeaky,” the Right Man said. To me, he said, “New in our little town?” in a voice that was near worn out from tobacco and whiskey.

“Just kind of passing through—resting my horse a bit, have a drink or two, maybe play a little poker.”

“You looking for work?” Right asked.

“Nope. Just drifting.”

“What do you do when you are working?” Right asked.

“This an’ that,” I said. “I work beef some—whatever comes along when I’m in need of money.”

“Bullshit,” Squeaky snapped. “You got no rope on your saddle and your hands look like them of one of them pansy-boys.”

I laughed. “And you sure do sound like one.”

Squeaky went for his pistol. I blew him off his horse before he had a chance to bring his barrel at me. I swung immediately to Right, ready to fire, but he was just sitting there in his saddle rolling a cigarette.

“That goddamn voice can sure get on a man’s nerves after a bit,” he said. “Like a goddamn ol’ rusty gate cryin’ out for oil every time it’s opened.”

“Your friend a mite touchy about it?”

“Shit, Squeaky’s touchy about everything.”  He grinned. “Or he was until you plugged him, anyways.”

“Maybe a fellow like that,” I said, “ought to keep his yap shut ’til he gets a whole lot handier with his weapon.”

“Could be,” Right said noncommittally. “Say, you fancy a drink?”

“Another time,” I said. “I’m just takin’ a little walk, like I said.”

Right’s voice became flinty and cold. “I’d suggest you have that drink with me—let me tell you about Gila Bend.”

I waited a few seconds but not too many. “Sure,” I said, “let’s do that.”

“My name’s Mack.”

“Mine’s Pound.”

There was no offer to shake hands on either part.

Mack walked his horse over to the rail of the saloon I’d just left, swung down, and tied up.

“What about that?” I asked, nodding toward the corpse still leaking blood into the dust and grit of the street.

“Ain’t nothin’. It’ll get took care of.”

We went into the saloon. Mack walked over to a table where four men were playing cards. There wasn’t a word exchanged, but each picked up his money and cards and found another table.

“You the lawman here?” I asked.

Mack chuckled. “In a sense, maybe. I ride with Billy Powers, an’ anyone who rides with him is a kind of a lawman—we make our own laws.” He found his own attempt at humor hilarious and laughed like the braying of a mule.

I forced a grin. “Who’s this Billy Powers?”

A bartender brought a bottle and two glasses and hurried off. “Billy,” Mack said, “owns Gila Bend—every whore, every bottle, the mercantile, the other store, the livery, the assay office—the whole shebang. He moved in with a few men—afore my time—and just took over. An’ here we are—four dead lawmen later.”

I nodded as if impressed. “He must have come in with a basketful of money to buy up all the businesses,” I said.

Mack brayed again. “Buy? Buy, my ass! He jus’ took ’em over, an’ a percentage of the take of each place goes right into his pocket.”

“Sounds like a sweet deal to me, Mack,” I said. I poured each shot glass full. We both downed the whiskey. My surprise must have shown on my face: the booze was smooth and smoky. “The swill,” Mack explained, “goes to the town people. The good stuff is reserved for Billy an’ his men.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “The people let Billy Preston just—”

“Powers.”

“Sorry, Powers. Anyway they let Billy and his men jus’ ride in an’ take over?”

“Some didn’t. You can see them from the little rise outside town. Boot Hill, it’s called.”

“Well, that’s one way to keep peace in a town,” I said.

“Lemme ask you this,” Mack said. “You wanted? Is there money on your head?”

“Maybe,” I said.

I felt something hard pressing against my right kneecap.

Mack grinned wolfishly. “Ever see what a .45 will do to a kneecap? It ain’t real pretty. Either the fella bleeds out and croaks, or a doc saws the sumbitch off a couple inches above the wound, ’cause of gangrene.”  He paused for a moment.  “So let’s cut out this ‘maybe’ horseshit.”

I remained silent a few moments longer. That goddamn .45 felt as big as the maw of a canon against my knee. Mack was right about bullet-shattered kneecaps. Hell, I’d rather take a slug between the eyes.

“You got eight hundred dollars in your saddlebag, Pound. That ain’t the kinda money a man draws for following a herd—’specially without a throwin’ rope an’ a bedroll no cowpuncher would tie onto his saddle. So where’d the money come from, Pound?”

I grinned at Mack. “No matter how many of my knees you shoot up, I’m still faster than you and better than you.”

“Bullshit. But you an’ me might just find that out someday, no?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “You can bet on that.”

“Seems to me you already are bettin’, Pound. Now, what about the money?”

“My poke came from a pimp outside of Yuma. I had a bit of a fancy for one of his whores. She was a pretty girl—not like the goddamn buffalo cows you have here. One day I saw some bad bruises on her ass and back. Her pimp—name of Spenser—found out she was pleasuring me most afternoons and he wasn’t getting his cut. This Spenser had a bodyguard outside his room. At that time I figured I was a tough young buck, and I was carrying a pair of .45s. I emptied one into the guard and the other into the pimp. I found his poke under his bed—damned near four thousand dollars. Then I hauled ass. So, about paper on me, I don’t know. I just wandered and drifted, spending the pimp’s money.”

I didn’t have to make up the story as I went along; it was true.

“Where’s the rest of the cash?”  

“Like I said, I pissed it away—I’ve got maybe six hundred in my pocket plus the eight you found—and that’s the end of it. Tell you the truth, I came through here to see if you folks had a bank I could do some work in. If not, the assay office would work out, too.”

“Woulda been one big goddamn mistake,” Mack said.

“I can see that now.”

The muzzle of the pistol slipped away from my knee, and I could hear the oiled shuff as he holstered the gun. That made my breathing a lot easier and more even.

Mack poured more whiskey for both of us. “I seen you get your coat out of the way of your Colt, Pound. You one of these crazy-fast gunmen like Doc Holliday or maybe Wyatt himself?”

Maybe it was the whiskey talking for me: I should have shut up. “Holliday uses a goddamn shotgun he carries under his duster. He’s got consumption or something, and he coughs most of the time when he isn’t sucking air. I imagine I could blow him straight to hell before he fumbled out the scatter gun. Holliday is one of those fellows—like Billy the Kid—who lives on luck and backshooting and reputation.”

“What about Earp?”

“Different story. I never met the man. I never saw him in trouble, in a gunfight. I hear he’s real fast and shoots well, and I heard that from men I trust, men I could believe.

Maybe I could drop him; maybe I couldn’t. I don’t know—or care.”

Mack chuckled. “Ain’t you somethin’?  You figure there’s anyone in this place who could take you?  Some of the gamblers are good, and there are a few of Billy Powers’s men here.”

“No,” I said. “Not face to face anyway. Any one of them could take me out from behind.”  I shoved my chair away from the table and stood. “I still want to take my walk, Mack. I’m sure I’ll see you again.”  I took a five out of my pocket and dropped it on the table.

“Wazzat?” Mack asked.

“That’s awful good whiskey. I thought I’d pay for the bottle.”

“Don’t be an idjit. Billy Powers and his men don’t pay for nothin’ in Gila Bend. Not a goddamn thing—whores, booze, mercantile stuff, whatever. I’m ridin’ a good Texas-made saddle that woulda cost me seventy-five, maybe eighty dollars. I jus’ walked into the livery, seen her there, picked her up, unstrapped my old saddle and left it there on the ground, and fit the new one to my cayuse. Billy, he takes care of his boys.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “But I ain’t one of Powers’s men.” 

I left the saloon and continued my walk. All the businesses except the gin mills were closed. There were no kids playing in the street, no ol’ gents sitting on benches whittling and arguing politics, no women scurrying about between the stores. It was as if some sort of plague had struck Gila Bend, wiping out all the good and normal people, leaving behind only the homicidal losers and kill-crazy gunmen. Come to think of it, that wasn’t too far from actuality.

There was a light on inside a two-story hotel. I went in, got a first-floor room with a window looking out on the street, paid for three days, and stretched out on the bed, which wasn’t half bad for a hotel bed. I was tired but couldn’t sleep. The whiskey was still buzzing in my head and my conversation with Mack replayed in my mind. Finally, I said the hell with it, pulled on my boots and coat, and went back outside.

Down the street there was a gathering of thirty or forty men, clustered around two men on horses. As I got closer, I saw money was changing hands. I looked over the horses. One was a loud-colored Appaloosa that was well muscled and sleek and glowing with nervous sweat and mouthing his bit. The other was a tall black that looked to have some Thoroughbred blood. He was nicely put together. Both horses were studs—or, if not, they’d found interesting places to carry a couple doorknobs. The black was antsy and dancing a bit.

I like horseracing—always have. Covering ground real fast isn’t all that important overall in a good horse, but still, racing was fun to watch. The cluster of men cleared back from the riders. The run was to be down the street to the end of the town, swing around the last building, and then race back to where they’d started. A fellow approached me with two-to-one odds on the black, but I’m not much of a wagering man and I declined.

The rider of the Appy was young, probably not twenty yet. The beard he was trying to grow was scrawny and didn’t look like it was going to fill out anytime soon. He wore a holstered Colt. His hat looked new. The other rider was of the Billy Powers gang sort. He was at least half drunk, weaving slightly in his saddle.

They got their horses aligned and then held them on tight reins, both riders barely touching their horse’s flanks with their heels. The kid wasn’t wearing spurs, but the other had those sharp-roweled Mexican gutrippers tied onto his boots.  That he used the spurs often was easy enough to see; the black’s flanks were masses of healing cuts, scars, and some fresh slashes that were still weeping blood.

The moon had risen—a full one, casting a good deal of light. Other than that, the only illumination was that from the saloons. Both horses were dancing a bit, still on a tight rein.

“C’mon, goddammit!” the older rider shouted. “I ain’t gonna sit out here all night.”

A man stepped out of the crowd holding his pistol over his head. “On three when I fire,” he shouted. “One… Two…”  The black was in motion the very smallest bit of time before the starter yelled “three” and fired into the air.

Every man there saw the black jump the start. No one said a word about it.

Both horses knew their jobs well. They came off the start as if they were running from Satan himself, hurling clods of dirt behind them with all four hooves.

It took the Appaloosa only a half dozen long, powerful strides to catch the black—but he couldn’t pass him. Or the kid was savvier than he looked and was holding his mount back, saving some horse for the run home.

Most—in fact, all—the races I’ve seen in Texas, the horse and rider automatically lose if the rider uses a quirt or crop in front of the saddle cinch. Apparently, that rule didn’t apply in Gila Bend.

The outlaw was whipping hell out of his horse—in front of the cinch—for no reason at all. That black horse was running his heart: he didn’t need the quirt or the cruel spurs to urge more speed out of him.

It was difficult to see what was going on because of the thick cloud of grit and dust behind them. I barely saw the outlaw raise his quirt and swing it at either the Appy or his rider. Several men who’d picked it up too laughed.

“Ol’ Frankie, he don’t like to lose,” one said.

It was in that turn that the kid and the Appaloosa grabbed the lead. He turned smoothly and easily—as if he were on tracks. The black scrambled in the turn, shaking his head, long strands of foamy spittle flailing back from his muzzle as he ran. A bottle was passed around; there’d be nothing to see until the horses rounded the other end of town and hauled for home. I refused the drink and passed the whiskey on.

I had a real sick feeling about this horserace, and I wished I weren’t there. Better yet, I wished neither the kid nor his hot Appaloosa were there.

The report of a pistol on the prairie is a flat pop. A shotgun is something completely different. There’s a big boom that echoes about before it dies. The only thing louder than a shotgun is a Sharps or a Springfield.

I should have left right then—after I heard the deep bellow of a shotgun. I hadn’t seen a scatter gun on the outlaw’s saddle, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. It could have been a cutoff sheathed tight to the saddle fender or in or under his bedroll.

After a few moments, the outlaw loped his sweated black around the far end of town and came to us.

The kid walked out of an alley between a couple of buildings. I was pleased to see that—it’s easy enough to kill a horse, I guess, and I was glad the kid walked out onto the street.

He strode up to the man he’d raced against and slapped him across his face. There isn’t much more demeaning to a man than to be slapped.

“You killed a horse that had a whole lot better breeding than you have, you piece of shit,” the boy snarled.

The kid stood back, his hand right over the Colt he wore.

“Why, goddamn,” the outlaw said. “We got us a real gunfighter here.”

The kid backed up a half step. His right hand was an inch above his pistol. “You killed my horse,” he said, “because he was faster’n your horse.”

The outlaw stepped out a bit from the other men. “You think you can take me, boy?

“I’ll tell you what—either I can or I’ll or die trying.”

 I stepped in front of the young kid and drew. I put a couple of slugs into the outlaw’s chest and stepped over to him to make certain he was dead. He was.

“Look here, mister—this wasn’t your fight. You got no right to step…”

“I’ll tell you what boy: this piece of trash would have kept talking to you a bit and then when you were about to answer, he’d have killed you.”

“I’m faster—”

“You’re a whole lot stupider,” I interrupted. “Fast isn’t all that important: accuracy is—and so is knowing the tricks.”

For the first time, the young man’s emotion showed in his eyes. They glistened a bit, and he wiped them with the back of his hand. “He was a good horse.” His voice cracked on the word “horse.”

“I’m sure he was, boy. But you’ve got something to do right away: buy a horse at the livery and get the hell out of town. This group is ugly already, and if you give them a little more time and a little more whiskey, there’s going to be a bucketful of trouble.”

“But…but you were the one who gunned that man.”

“Yeah. I was. But they won’t see it that way—at least not completely. In their thinking you caused the race and you caused the outlaw’s death. Go on, kid, beat it.”

“I don’t have any money to buy a…”

I gave him a fifty from my vest pocket. “You do now. Collect your tack from your Appy, buy a horse, and haul ass. Hear?”

“Yessir, I do. Thanks. I don’t know why you’re doing this.”

“‘Why’ doesn’t matter. Just get moving.”

He turned back toward the alley he’d cut through to collect his saddle, bridle, and gear.

The outlaws stood around their dead comrade, looking down at him as if they’d never seen a corpse before. There was as much emotion as there’d be if one scorpion died in a nest of them.

“Sumbitch cheated at cards, too,” one outlaw said.

Another slapped at his shirt pocket. “Shit,” he said. “I’m outta makins’. Luke, lemme have a smoke, will ya?”

I walked away from them and went back to my hotel. I’d figured at least one or two would have tried to avenge the man on his back in the street. No one did—no one gave a damn.

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