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.
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.”
“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.”
“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—”
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