SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER SIX
That Jack Gilling and Clay Mellowes should meet was not inevitable, but seemed more than likely. Both men were in the same small part of the world at the same time and were, albeit in the broadest sense, in the same line of business. So many ‘sames’ suggested that they might well come across one another.
The exact nature of the confrontation involved several kinds of irony. It took place in the Rosewood Basin of New Mexico at a critical moment in the history of that region. The area was a tinderbox. Cattlemen and sheepherders had been embroiled for some time in a steadily intensifying dispute which had just about come to a head as Jack Gilling and Clay Mellowes converged on the town of Rosewood. Neither man was aware that this was the focal point of the impending clash.
Though Gilling and Mellowes were involved in gunplay, they were in distinctly different branches of it. Jack Gilling always operated with his partner, Luke Marsh and the two had evolved a remarkable way of making a living. It wasn’t exactly a steady occupation and was never likely to be a long-term one but it had already lasted well over a year when the two men arrived in Rosewood.
Gilling was passably handy with a six-shooter, though nothing like good enough to be a real gunfighter. He could draw fairly quickly but was a poor marksman. Had he ever been obliged to try conclusions with a genuine professional, he would not have had a chance. However, so far he had avoided any such inconvenience. Not that he was greatly troubled by the prospect, for apart from his total aversion to working for a living, his most pronounced quality was recklessness. He simply didn’t care what happened to him. Furthermore, he had complete confidence in his ability to brazen or wriggle his way out of any difficulty.
So far, Gilling and Marsh had done business in eleven towns, and had fared well in ten of them. The failure was the one in which the local lawman had been an exceptionally tough and very irritable fellow. Without waiting to find out what the two adventurers were up to, he had assumed the worst and sent them on their way.
The system was simple. Gilling and Marsh sought out communities which were big enough to give them what they wanted, but too small to offer them much resistance. First, Marsh would survey the target, returning to report his findings. If the outlook was promising, he would ride in the following day, ahead of his friend, enter a saloon and let it be known that he was fleeing from the dreaded gunslinger Gilling, who had a score to settle with him and would soon hit town. Gilling would allow a reasonable time for Marsh to attract attention, then swagger into the saloon, confront his quarry and call him out. Invariably, Marsh would go for his gun and always Gilling would outdraw him and apparently shoot him, usually in the gun hand. The master marksman would then declare himself satisfied and Marsh would be sent packing.
What with Marsh’s build-up and Gilling’s awesome shooting display, the gunman would usually find the town nicely cowed. He would then presume upon his obvious powers to get whatever he wanted from the local saloons and stores, informing the owners that he would settle with them when it suited him. Rarely did anyone care to argue with him. After a couple of days, and without spending a penny, Gilling would leave the town, loaded with supplies, and rejoin his partner. The play-acting was effective and it enabled the pair to avail themselves of whatever they wanted.
Clay Mellowes was different. For one thing, he was, or at least had been, a gunman of some notoriety, having killed four men in fair shootouts and faced down half a dozen others. However, by the time he arrived in Rosewood, he was a spent force. He knew it, and was aware that his survival depended on not letting anyone else know it. He had almost – but not quite – managed that. So far, his reputation had kept him safe, but he expected to meet his nemesis, sooner or later. He’d already had one close call, having dissuaded a young hothead from taking a chance against him.
The truth was that Mellowes could no longer see properly. For nearly a year, his eyes had been giving trouble. His vision was intermittently blurred, and even when it wasn’t, he often had difficulty in focusing. Now, unless he was having a particularly good day, he couldn’t guarantee to hit a house from its garden gate.
Gilling and Marsh arrived in Rosewood from the South on a blistering July afternoon. As usual, Marsh, a short thin rat-faced man, went in a couple of hours before his partner. There was a sprinkling of cowpunchers and townspeople in the Southern Star, the largest of the three saloons. It didn’t take long for Marsh to move into his routine. He had offended the fearsome Jack Gilling, who was now on his heels. Just time for a whiskey or two to steady the nerves, then he would be on his way. No future for anybody facing Gilling.
With impeccable timing, the gunman strode into the saloon. He was a tall broad man, dwarfing his partner. Immediately, his eyes lighted upon Marsh, who was speaking. The smaller man stopped in mid-sentence, his mouth falling wide open as he saw Gilling. Then he deposited his glass on the bar and wiped his hands nervously on his pants. “H… Hello, Jack,” he mumbled.
The pistolero was not disposed to waste time. He moved over to the bar. The locals, sensing what was about to happen, shuffled away, giving the two men a clear field. Gilling stood, arms akimbo, facing Marsh. “I’ve only one thing to say to you, feller,” he snapped. “Haul iron.”
Marsh was quivering. “Now just … just …w …wait a minute,” he stammered.
Gilling snatched up a glass from the bar. “I’ve waited long enough,” he said. “When this thing hits the floor, you draw or you take what’s coming anyway.” He tossed the glass high. The instant it hit the floor, Marsh made a show of going for his gun. He’d barely cleared leather when Gilling fired his single shot, a blank as always. Marsh cried out, dropping his weapon. He clapped his left hand over the right, neatly bursting the packet of cow’s blood strapped to his lower forearm. “Damn,” he gasped, staring at the red liquid dripping from his fingers to the floor. “You broke my wrist.”
“That’s what I aimed to do,” Gilling replied. “It’s good enough. Now get your gun and hit the trail before I change my mind and kill you.”
Making a show of his pain, Marsh did as he was told, leaving the saloon and riding rapidly out of the town. Gilling holstered his weapon and ordered whiskey.
The bartender, now a bag of nerves, served him. “Mister, I never saw shooting like that before,” he said. “You just blasted the gun right out of his hand. Didn’t mean to kill him.”
Gilling downed his drink. “Leave the bottle,” he growled. “If I’d meant to kill him, he’d be dead. You want to draw and see me prove it again?”
“My God, no. I don’t have a sidearm anyway. It’s just the most amazin’ thing I ever saw. Didn’t mean any offence.”
“Well, okay. None taken this time. Just mind your tongue in future.”
“I’ll do that.”
His initial performance over, Gilling settled himself down with three more shots of the raw liquor. People were leaving and entering the saloon and within an hour there wasn’t a soul in the town who didn’t know of the newcomer’s exploit. That was the usual way of it. Soon, Gilling would find the best accommodation available and set about acquiring what he and Marsh would need for the next month or two. Of course, he wouldn’t pay for anything and it was a near-certainty that nobody would press him to do so. That might be unwise.
By mid-afternoon, Gilling was relaxing in the most comfortable room that Rosewood’s sole hotel had to offer. He’d treated himself to a bottle of the establishment’s finest brandy and was toying with the idea of a meal when there was a knock at the door. Sliding out his gun, he called the visitor to enter.
The incomer was a slim fellow of average height, with the dress and bearing of a cowboy. “Evening,” he said. “Name’s Kydd. I’m foreman for Lewis Stockdale. He leads the cattlemen around here.”
“I’m Jack Gilling. What do you want?”
“I’ll get straight to the point. There’s big trouble here between us ranchers and the sheepmen. It’s just about ready to explode. My boss figures that a top gunhand will give us the edge we need. From what you did today, we reckon you could be that man, if you’ll take on the job.”
“Oh, you reckon that, do you? And what do you think it’s worth?”
“A straight thousand dollars. I have it here. Maybe you won’t have to do anything apart from staying around for a week or so. ’Course, if the sheepmen bring anybody in, we’d expect you to earn the money.”
Like most men who lived by their wits, the fake shootist was quick on the uptake. His mind raced as Kydd was speaking. Even before the man had finished, Gilling knew he was going to take the cash. He would work out later what to do. Maybe he would just run off. He’d do so for sure if the sheepmen brought in a serious gunfighter. He made quite a demonstration of considering the matter, getting up from the bed and walking over to stare out of the window, rubbing his jaw.
Both men stood in silence for nearly three minutes, then Gilling turned sharply. “All right,” he said. “I normally rate a good deal more than a thousand dollars for a job like this, but as it happens, I’m sympathetic to cowmen and I’ve no time for sheep. Give me the money and tell Stockdale I’ll look after his interests. Maybe we can bring things to the boil in a week. If not, we’ll think about it again.”
Kydd handed over a wad of bills. “Can we rely on you to stand by us?” he asked.
It wasn’t the right remark to pass to a top gunfighter. Gilling gave the foreman a look fit to kill. “Mister,” he said very quietly. “Are you questioning my integrity?”
Kydd held up a protesting hand. “No, not at all. Sorry. I guess I just don’t know how to handle this kind of thing. I never did the like of it before.”
“If you don’t watch your manners, you might never do it again. You can get on your way now. Give it a couple of days, then call again and we’ll talk. I’ll have worked something out by then.”
Kydd left without another word and Gilling began to consider how best to handle his stroke of luck, without involving himself in anything so dangerous as flying lead. There was a good case for hitting the trail without further ado. After all, a thousand dollars was a tidy sum. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t be called upon to act at all, so there might be a chance of getting a haul of supplies, in addition to the money. Two days later, Gilling was still trying to decide on his best course. In the meantime, he had had the run of the town and had not heard anything further from the rancher, Stockdale, who was clearly giving him the time he’d suggested.
It was late in the afternoon of this third day of Gilling’s stay in Rosewood when another visitor came to town, this time from the North. Clay Mellowes was making his way to nowhere in particular and was not in a hurry. This looked as good a place as any to stay for a day or two, so he took his horse to the livery stable then headed for the nearest saloon. This was a smaller place than the one where Gilling had made his entrance, and was the one favoured by the sheepmen for what little drinking they did in town. The owner, Coleman, kept two guest bedrooms, both a good deal less comfortable than anything at the hotel. However, Mellowes didn’t care to search the town for something better, so he decided to stay the night where he was.
He hadn’t been in the saloon more than five minutes when the bartender walked across the room, bent over and muttered something to a man drinking alone at a table. The man nodded, got up and left. Mellowes, whose eyesight was still good enough to note anything so obvious, smiled to himself. He had been recognised. Well, why not? He wasn’t exactly travelling incognito. It would be interesting to see whether his presence would cause a stir. It would.
As with the more dramatic arrival of Gilling and Marsh, the appearance of Mellowes, a renowned gunman, was known to everyone in the town within the hour. People began to drop into the saloon for a quick drink, before leaving to tell others that they had seen the redoubtable Clay Mellowes. The man himself affected not to notice. He just hoped that no young upstart would come along to spoil the day by trying to provoke him.
After drinking his fill of whiskey, Mellowes crossed the street for an evening meal, then returned to the saloon, going straight up to his room. An hour later he was lying on his bed, smoking a cigar, when there was a knock at the door. He drew his gun, inviting the visitor to enter. An extraordinarily tall, lugubrious-looking fellow came in. “Evening,” he said. “Hope you don’t mind my asking, but are you Clay Mellowes?”
“That’s right. What can I do for you?”
“Plenty, if you’ve a mind to. My name’s Overton. I’m speaking for the sheepmen here.”
“Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a storm brewing between us and the cattlemen. No point in giving you all the details. Long and short of it is there’s going to be a hell of a bust-up any day now. We’re just sheepherders, not warmongers. We need a good man with a gun to give us a chance when the ruckus starts. I’m asking if you’ll help us?”
Mellowes took out his cigar, inspecting it while he stroked his chin. It was close to a minute before he replied. “I’m retired. Maybe, just maybe, I’d consider one more job. If you can afford it, that is.”
“I hope we can,” said Overton. “Truth is we’ve no experience in such matters. We reckon we’d need you for about a week. Maybe you won’t need to … er … work. Your name alone might do the trick. We put together all the money we can spare. Comes to just a thousand dollars. That enough?”
Mellowes stared at the man for another long moment, then said: “My usual rate for a job like this would be two thousand, half before and half after.” Seeing Overton’s face fall, he held up a hand. “All right. I hear you boys have had a pretty raw deal, so I’m willing to make an exception. I’ll do the job for you, but I want the money now. That suit you?”
Overton was clearly uncomfortable, but had little choice. “Fair enough,” he said. “I guess you’ll stick with us, once you have the money.”
“You suggesting I might run out on you?” Mellowes’ tone was suddenly menacing.
“Hell, no,” Overton replied. “Didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“All right. I reckon you didn’t know any better. Just give me the money and allow a day or two for me to figure out how I’ll play it.”
Overton handed over a roll of bills. “Just one thing you ought to know,” he said. “There’s been talk around town that the cattlemen might have hired a man. Don’t know whether it’s true or not, but there’s a stranger in town, name of Gilling. They say he’s handy with a pistol. Mean anything to you?”
“No. He can’t be much of a gunman if I never heard of him. I know them all. Don’t worry about him. You can go now. Let me know where I can contact you and I’ll be in touch.”
After giving directions to his place, Overton departed, leaving Mellowes to reflect on his own show of bravado. In his condition, it would be suicide to go up against even a second-rater. Still, he had collected his thousand dollars. Now he had to decide what to do, short of getting into a battle. Well, he would sleep on it. Something would occur to him. He was still pondering on the matter an hour later, when there was another knock at the door. Grabbing his gun again, he growled: “Yeah. Come in.”
The door opened slowly and an elderly wizened little man, almost bald, entered. “Mr Mellowes, sir?” he asked.
“That’s right. Now what?”
“Well, sir, you don’t know me. I’m the swamper in the Southern Star, at the other end of town.”
“That’s nice. What do you want with me?”
“Well, Mr Mellowes, I was just wonderin’ whether you think information is worth anythin’?”
“Mister, I’m tired. If you have something to say, spit it out. I’ve no time for riddles.”
“Okay, sir. Fact is, I got contacts here an’ there, an’ I keep my mouth shut an’ my eyes an’ ears open, so I get news that others don’t hear about. I know somethin’ about Jack Gilling that could be real valuable to you, if you had a mind to pay for it.”
“What makes you think I’d be interested in this Gilling?”
“Well, it’s goin’ around town that he’s been hired by the cattlemen to take their side in this here dispute that’s goin’ on. Now, a man don’t need to be too clever to put two an’ two together an’ figure out that maybe you’re here to take up with the sheepmen.”
“Never mind that. What’s this about Gilling?”
The swamper rubbed his hands together. “I’m a poor man, Mr Mellowes, sir,” he said. This news is real important. I reckon it’d be worth a hundred dollars to you.”
Mellowes lowered his gun. He wasn’t going to need it. “What’s to stop me from getting a hold of that scrawny neck and wringing it out of you?” he rasped.
“Oh, I don’t think you’ll do that. See, I took precautions. Left a couple o’ sealed-up notes around, in case somethin’ unpleasant happens to me. One of ’em’s with the town marshal. He ain’t too bright, but he can read well enough. If I don’t see him first thing in the mornin’, in good condition, he’ll read what I wrote. Guess I don’t need to say any more. Anyway, like I say, I reckon you’ll find what I can tell you is well worth the money.”
Mellowes dug from his shirt pocket the cash he had received from Overton, peeling off a hundred dollars. “All right,” he said. “You’ll not find me small-minded if your information’s good. What is it?”
“Well, it’s like this. Gilling’s a fraudster. He works with another man. They pick out towns. The partner rides in first an’ puts it around that he’s on the run from a top pistolero. Gilling goes in an hour or two after him and pretends to shoot him up, then takes over the place for a while. Gets everythin’ they want, then they meet up again. Fact is, Gilling’s no gunman. You can take it from me, he’d run a mile before facin’ a real shoot-out. If you’re in with the sheepmen, you just need to call him out an’ you’ll have an easy ride.”
“You sure of this?”
“As sure as sure can be, Mr Mellowes. You can bet your life on it.”
“Maybe I will. Okay, I figure that’s worth a hundred. Here it is. Now get out and keep your mouth shut, or I’ll know who to look up after I’m through with Gilling.”
Ten minutes later, while Mellowes was working out how to proceed in the light of what he had just heard, Jack Gilling was relaxing in his room at the hotel, when there was a knock at his door. He picked up his gun and bade the caller enter. It was the old swamper. “Evenin’ Mr Gilling, sir,” he said.
“Yeah, same to you,” Gilling replied. “Something I can do for you?”
“It’s more a question of somethin’ I can do for you.”
“And what might that be?” “I have some news that would be real interestin’ to you.”
“What is it?”
“Well, see, Mr Gilling. I’m a poor man. Seems to me I deserve to be paid. Could be a matter of life or death to you, so I figure it’s worth a hundred dollars. Do we have a deal?”
Gilling was as nonchalant in money matters as he was about everything else. He grinned at the little man. “What could you know that would be worth a hundred dollars to me?”
“I guess it’s all around town that you’ve taken up with the cattlemen in this trouble that’s goin’ on here an’ I reckon everybody knows that the sheepmen have brought in a gunfighter of their own. Feller by the name of Clay Mellowes. You know him?”
“I know of him. What about it?”
“Well, Mellowes has a room in Coleman’s saloon. I can tell you somethin’ that’ll make sure you have the edge on him. I’d say that’s worth a hundred dollars. Wouldn’t you?”
Gilling didn’t hesitate. He went to the commode, opened the top drawer and pulled out five twenty-dollar bills. Unlike Mellowes, he didn’t consider threatening violence to get the details out of the swamper. “Okay,” he said. “If I believe your story, the money’s yours.”
“Well, sir, it’s like this. I get a deal of information that most folks don’t know about. I got contacts an’ I can tell you that you’ve no need to worry about Mellowes. He can’t see worth a damn.”
“Can’t see? So how come he’s a gunslinger?”
“He was one. That’s over an’ done with. There’s somethin’ wrong with his eyes. I know for a fact that he couldn’t hit you from across the street to save his life. You tangle with him an’ you’re sure to win.”
“That’s a new one on me,” said Gilling, “and I’m taking your word for it. Here’s your money. Now get out of here – and remember, if you’ve steered me wrong, I’ll be calling on you.”
“You won’t need to do that. What I told you is genuine. Good night, sir.”
Half an hour after the swamper left Gilling’s room, Mellowes was preparing for bed when there was a knock at his door. “Come in,” he bawled, snatching up his gun yet again. The door opened, revealing Jack Gilling. Mellowes, now thoroughly irritated, glared at his latest visitor. “What the hell’s wrong with you people?” he snapped. “I paid for a room here. Seems to me I’d get more peace out in the street.”
The intruder held up calming hands. “I’m real sorry to bust in on you like this, but I just figured we might have something to discuss. I’m Jack Gilling.”
“Okay, now we both know who you are. What have we to talk about?”
Gilling had been thinking hard and had decided there was no point in taking chances. Even if Mellowes was a has-been, there was a chance he would get off a lucky shot and Gilling had no intention of getting into a real gunfight with anybody. “Well, Mellowes,” he said, “I know all about your eyes. Never mind how, but I’m sure. Now, I’m a professional, just like you are. It wouldn’t be right for me to take advantage. You can call it courtesy if you want.”
“You’d better sit down,” said Mellowes, indicating a chair, “and you might care to note that you’re not the only one with useful information. I happen to know something about you, too.” Without revealing his source, he told what he knew.
Gilling’s rubbed his jaw, his fertile mind evaluating the position for some time. “Well,” he said finally, “I guess everybody must have figured by now that we’re likely to have things out between us. I think there’s only one thing to be done, and the sooner the better. Here’s how I see it.”
The following day, at one minute to noon, Jack Gilling stepped out of the hotel into the oven-heat. His horse, prepared for departure, was tethered to the hitch rail. Slowly, he moved to the middle of the street and stood there looking eastwards, right thumb hooked in his gun belt, left hand holding a stone. Seconds later, Clay Mellowes emerged from Coleman’s saloon and took up a position facing Gilling. His horse too, was hitched and trail-ready.
The two men began to pace forwards, narrowing the distance between them to less than thirty feet, then stopped. There was no one else in sight but the word had been passed around and at least fifty people were watching through windows and at half-opened doors.
Gilling tipped back his hat. “So here we are,” he said. “I guess it just had to come out like this.”
Mellowes nodded. “Was likely enough. You picked a nice day to die.”
“We’ll see about that,” Gilling replied. I reckon everyone here knows by now that I always give the other fellow his chance.” He held up the stone. “Just so that nobody can say that one of us tried to get the drop, I’ll toss this over to the sidewalk. When it lands, the fun starts. Okay?”
“Fine. Here we go.” Gilling lobbed the stone, which hit the planking to start a strictly even contest. The two guns were drawn and roared simultaneously. Mellowes’ shot went high and wide and instantly he clapped a hand to his chest, staggered back three steps, then fell face down in the thick dust.
Gilling walked cautiously towards his collapsed adversary. Kneeling, he turned Mellowes over onto his back. The fallen man’s shirt was already soaked with blood. “That’s it, then,” said Gilling to no-one in particular. Some of the more adventurous spectators began to emerge from their concealment, moving tentatively to the scene of the action. Gilling whipped his gun around in a threatening arc. “Keep away, all of you,” he snapped. “He’s dead.”
“You sure?” one man inquired.
“Did you ever hear of a man living after a shot through the heart?” Gilling said, his voice loaded with sarcasm.
“I guess not.”
Showing a degree of respect that amazed the onlookers, Gilling picked up the body, carried it to the horse waiting outside Coleman’s saloon and draped it across the saddle. Then he brought his own horse from the hotel, mounted and led the two animals away, turning to give a last grim look at the gathering crowd. “Okay, you’ve seen the entertainment,” he said. “Mellowes was a top-class gunman and a fair fighter. I know where he wanted to be buried and I’m taking him there. I don’t want anybody else along.” He put the horses to a slow walk northwards.
Four miles out of town, with none of the local people in sight, Gilling arrived at a clump of trees. Luke Marsh stepped out to meet him. “How’d it go, Jack?” he asked.
Gilling told the story in a few words and just as he finished speaking, a voice came from behind the two men: “Do you aim to stay here all day?”
“Oh, sorry about that,” said Gilling, turning. “You can quit being dead now, Mellowes. You did real well.”
The ‘corpse’ slid from the saddle and did a little foot-stamping to restore circulation. “Good idea of yours, that pack of blood,” said the grinning Mellowes. “Very convincing.”
“Works a treat,” Gilling replied. Fishing in a coat pocket, he pulled out a roll of bills. “Here’s the money. Your nine hundred dollars from the sheepmen that you gave me for safekeeping in case they tried to get it back, plus five hundred of my own for damaging your reputation.”
“Thanks,” said Mellowes. “I was about to change my name anyway, even if we hadn’t run into one another, so you’ve no need to worry about my fame and fortune. The first is more trouble than it’s worth and the second is all here.” He waved a thick wad of currency, to which he added what Gilling had just given him. “Nice doing business with you. Goodbye, Jack.”
“So long, Clay.”
* * *