OUT WEST : NUMBER ONE
Incident In Texas
With forty minutes to go until noon, the temperature had just passed the three-figure mark. It was going to be a scorching day. Not one of the townspeople was outdoors. The only sign of movement in that baking heat was a horseman coming in from the west. Inside the grandiosely named Western Palace saloon the owner, Ed Martin, sat on his stool behind the bar that ran along the rear of the room. He was diagonally leftward of anyone coming in.
In the shady front corner, also to the left of incomers, the elderly swamper was on all fours, cleaning up a mess left the previous night. This fellow, Tom – he hadn’t mentioned his surname and nobody had shown any interest in knowing it – had arrived in town six months earlier, seeking employment. Now he spent some of his working hours tidying the saloon and the rest helping out in the livery barn, where he slept in the loft. When asked his age, he’d said that he was a little over sixty, leading one wag to retort that in flattering light the old boy might pass for eighty-five.
The only customers were two young cowboys who were having a second go at the hair of the proverbial dog. This was Monday and they had been in town since Saturday evening. Because they were too drunk to return to their ranch, the town marshal had invited them to spend the night in jail. Not needing to work on the Sunday, they had treated themselves to another binge and a second night as the marshal’s guest. Now they were making the most of their last couple of hours before going back to their duties.
The two cowpokes were at the north end of the long bar, twenty-odd feet from Martin. They were having fun at his expense, mostly by trying to think of appropriate names for what they were drinking. It was nominally whiskey, but they had found a few other expressions to indicate their feelings. Coffin varnish was their latest effort, to which Martin had retorted that they lacked originality, as the term was old and overused.
Though their remarks were made in fun, the cowboys were perhaps closer to the mark than they realised, for Martin was much like many another saloon-keeper in that part of the world, in that he was not averse to selling sub-standard liquor. When it came to whiskey, he often supplied neat alcohol mixed with tea, burnt sugar, chewing tobacco or any other liquid he could find to impart the right hue. And the provenance of his main ingredient was sometimes questionable. A customer had once asked Martin half in jest whether it was ethyl or methyl. The reply was short and cutting, but so ambiguous that it hadn’t entirely dispelled the doubts of some other patrons. One certainty was that the most common description of the stuff, rotgut, was accurate enough.
Outside, a burst of foot-stamping and beating of clothes heralded the arrival of the lone horseman, who was shedding dust before entering the saloon. Batting open the swing doors, he stepped in and took a slow look around before walking over to the bar, midway between Martin and the cowboys. About thirty-five years of age, he was a little under six feet in height, burly and with the exception of a white shirt, clad in black. His jacket was short enough to allow him easy access to a walnut-handled Colt forty-five revolver, worn low on his right thigh and held to his leg by a leather thong, indicating that he was a man accustomed to drawing in a hurry.
As if to bear out what the young cowpunchers had been saying, the newcomer demanded a bottle of Martin’s best whiskey. That meant he wanted a widely recognised brand and that he expected the vessel to be stoppered and sealed. No moonshine for this customer. The Western Palace kept only one such product, but it seemed to satisfy the stranger, who helped himself to a generous measure, knocked it back and poured another.
Ed Martin was garrulous enough with people he knew, but taciturn with others, so he didn’t make any effort to converse with the newcomer, who also gave no evidence of wishing to talk. As he worked his way slowly through his second drink, he stared down at the bar, seemingly sunk in thought.
A few minutes before midday, the cowhands were about ready to leave, which was all right with Martin, as they were becoming increasingly noisy. Suddenly the stranger looked their way. “Cut out that damned racket,” he growled.
One of the cowboys, Charlie Sawyer, a fair-haired fellow in his early twenties, stared at the man. “Mister,” he said, “you’d better watch your manners or somethin’ bad could happen to you.”
The stranger squared away from the bar and faced Sawyer. “And just who might make it happen?” he replied quietly.
Sawyer was a brash young man at any time. Now, with a few drinks in him, he was more than usually so. A wiser man would have noted not only the stranger’s thonged gun, but also his menacing stance, the arms hanging loosely, the fingers of his right hand a little below the butt of his weapon. The cowboy didn’t seem to register either point.” Could be me,” he retorted. “An’ who the hell do think you are, comin’ in here an’ tellin’ us how to talk?”
“Oh, I know who I am,” the stranger answered, still in that low tone of voice. “My name is Lee Barstow.”
A look of alarm appeared on Sawyer’s face. “You . . . you the man they call Black Death Barstow?” he said.
The man nodded. “Some do.”
Now Sawyer understood what the exchange of words had brought upon him. There was no more notorious gunslinger than Barstow. Apart from himself, nobody knew how many men he’d killed but his tally was certainly in double figures. Ed Martin saw trouble brewing and called out from behind the bar: ”Now take it easy, gents. There’s no need for – ”
“Shut up,” snapped Barstow, not taking his gaze from Sawyer. “This boy here practically called me out. Now he’ll have to back up his words. Come on, sonny,” he taunted. “Make something bad happen to me.”
Sawyer had a sixgun stuffed under his belt. He was a better than average shot and could hardly miss from this range of twelve feet, but he wasn’t particularly fast with his gun and certainly nothing like a match for Barstow. He looked into the deadly gunman’s fathomless black eyes. “Just a minute, mister, I’m – ”
“No excuses,” Barstow interrupted. “It’s time for you to make your move. I’m not a patient man, so don’t keep me waiting.”
Suddenly there was a change in Sawyer’s posture. He stood straighter and crooked his right arm, putting the hand close to his gun, which was at his left-hand side, butt reversed for a cross-draw. He seemed to have decided to go through with the fight. For a brief moment Barstow was slightly puzzled. He’d expected the ranch hand to start begging to be be let off. The fool now appeared to be setting himself for a burst of suicidal bravado.
Sawyer tensed his slim frame and shouted to the saloon-keeper: “Call it, Ed.”
For five seconds, there was total silence, then Martin yelled: “Now!”
Barstow whipped up his gun at lightning speed, but he didn’t level it. Instead he felt the thudding impact of a full pint bottle against the back of his head. Eyes glazing, he sank to his knees as his dropped weapon hit the floor. Standing behind him was the scrawny little swamper, bottle aloft again ready to administer another blow. He didn’t need to. Barstow remained in a state of involuntary balance for a second, and that was all the time Sawyer needed. He’d intended to try to shoot his opponent in the chest, that being the biggest target on offer. As it turned out, Barstow’s slow collapse put his head briefly where his torso had been and Sawyer’s bullet struck him an inch above the bridge of his nose.
The young cowboy watched open-mouthed as his adversary pitched face-down to the sawdust, the forward momentum caused by the blow to his head more than counteracting the bullet’s opposing force. The scene was frozen for a moment, then Sawyer, who had been staring at the dead man, turned his attention to the swamper. “I’m mighty grateful to you, Tom,” he said. “If you hadn’t taken a hand like that, he’d have killed me for sure. But how did you get that bottle of whiskey without goin’ to the bar?”
“It isn’t whiskey. The bottle was on the table back there, empty. When I saw what was coming up, I filled it with water from my bucket. Thought it would come in handy.”
“Well, that was quick thinkin’. Then there was the way you crept up on him.”
“That wasn’t too hard to do. There isn’t a backbar mirror and I wear these old moccasins, so he couldn’t see or hear me.”
“An’ you really wound yourself up to hit him so hard.”
“I needed to with a head like his. Maybe I killed him before you got off that shot. Anyway, you don’t need to get upset about him. He’s no loss to the world. He hadn’t a decent bone in his body. Never did have.”
Sawyer nodded. “I guess you’re right, but I seem to be gettin’ the idea that you know more about him than the rest of us do.”
“That’s not surprising,” Tom answered, “seeing that I’m his father.”
* * *