OUT WEST : NUMBER SEVENTEEN
Just Another Town
A battered sign, tilted twenty degrees from the perpendicular, read: ‘Bedrock. Straingers not welkum.’ Especially not if they’re literary folks, thought the Pinto Kid, noting that the population number below the hostile message had been crossed out and changed six times, reducing from 163 to 98. The Kid raced into town, bringing his green-tinted mare to a slithering, hock-wrenching halt outside the Lonesome Toad saloon. He dismounted with a leap, the operation marred only by his failure to extricate his left foot from its stirrup, a bungle that caused him to land rump-first in thick dust. It was an inauspicious entrance to an unpleasant community.
A cadaverous oldster who occupied a rickety chair on the porch, to the left of incomers, hawked hugely and directed a nine-foot squirt of tobacco juice at the Pinto Kid’s feet, getting it within an inch of the target. ‘Missed,’ he snarled. He usually did.
In the street, immediately in front of the sidewalk and to the Kid’s right, stood what seemed like a dummy Indian brave, immobile, unblinking and ramrod straight. Approaching this figure, the Kid waved a hand before its unresponsive face. ‘Are you real?’ he said.
‘I am. Name’s Billy Two-Eyes.’
‘Why do they call you that?’
‘Because I have two eyes.’
‘We all have. What’s different about you?’
‘I didn’t say anything was. You’re the one with the questions.’
‘Good point,’ said the Kid, using the Indian’s leathery cheek to strike a match, which he applied to his own mouth before realising that he hadn’t inserted a smoke.
The saloon’s batwing doors swung open, revealing the owner, Ned Falselove, a tall bald monstrously obese man, sweat-beads bespangling his pasty visage. His small black eyes – two raisins in a pat of dough – fixed on the newcomer. ‘What’s wrong with your horse, mister? he said. ‘Queer colour. She sick or somethin’?’
‘She’s a paint,’ snapped the Kid. ‘You heard of a paint horse, ain’t you?’
‘Sure, but I didn’t know they was hand-painted.’
‘Mescalero,’ the Kid responded enigmatically.
His interest exhausted, Falselove moved his mountain of lard back into its gloomy lair. The Pinto Kid pranced up the two steps to the sidewalk, snagging his troublesome left boot-heel on the overhanging plank. He recovered his balance with commendable agility. ‘Damned foot,’ he muttered. The cud-chewing old-timer cackled maniacally, then lolled back in his chair, eyes closed, attention probably occupied by some idea making its lonely way around whatever served him as a mind.
The Kid inflated his chest to its full thirty-four inches, then flung open the swing doors before starting to step inside. Being controlled by unusually strong springs, the batwings returned sharply, striking him amidships. He tottered backwards and sideways, caught his posterior on the hitch rail and made a three-quarter turn which deposited him face-down in the street. ‘Damned doors,’ he mumbled. Rising quickly, he bounded back onto the sidewalk and adroitly avoided another ejection of the once more wide awake old-timer’s tobacco juice. Negotiating the saloon doors, this time successfully, he swaggered to the bar, slapping his palms hard on the greasy splintered deal surface. It was a painful gesture, causing him to jam ringing hands into his armpits.
‘What’s it to be, feller?’ said Falselove. ‘Sarsaparilla or milk?’ His heap of blubber shook as he enjoyed the witticism.
The Kid summoned a steely glint. ‘Look, mister,’ he replied, ‘I don’t nohow and nowise take none o’ them sissy drinks. Not now, nor never. See?’
Ned chuckled. ‘You’re big on negatives. Why are you talkin’ so funny?’
‘I have to. I’m the Pinto Kid.’
‘Well, you sound like a loony to me.’
‘Look here, Shorty,’ said the Kid, staring up nine inches into the saloon-keeper’s eyes, ‘I don’t cotton to folks what don’t – ‘
‘Give it a rest,’ Falselove interrupted. He produced a sawn-off shotgun, rammed the twin barrels under the Kid’s chin and twitched them upwards, stretching his visitor’s neck by three inches. ‘See here,’ he grunted, his mirthless grin revealing an interesting mosaic of black and yellow teeth, ‘if you’ve come here to act mean, you’re in the wrong place.’
‘Why?’ said the Kid, squawking on account of his distorted vocal chords.
‘I guess you don’t understand,’ Falselove answered. ‘This is a tough town. I’m the softest man around, an’ even I’m givin’ you trouble. Now, if you was to meet some real rough company, like maybe Oxbow Duggan, you’d soon eat craw.’
‘I don’t know. It’s just an expression we have in these parts.’
‘Well, you must be mighty queer folks if you say things an’ don’t know what they mean. Anyway, as it happens, I’m lookin’ for Duggan.’
‘Mister,’ said Falselove, yanking the Kid’s face up another inch, ‘you act more like a head case than a hard case. An’ speakin’ of coincidence, here’s Oxbow hisself.’
At that moment, the doors were torn from their hinges and hurled across the room by a raging giant. Six-foot-eight and three hundred pounds, he was dressed in wolfskins and armed with a huge rifle, two sixguns and three knives. Crazed obsidian eyes glared out from his thicket of long head hair, beard and whiskers, all jet-black. ‘Redeye,’ he yelled.
‘Comin’ right up,’ said the quivering saloon-keeper. ‘On the house, like always.’ He produced a bottle of rotgut whiskey and tossed it to the colossus, who smashed off the neck on a table and downed two-thirds of the liquor at a single gulp. Falselove quaked on: ‘We just got through sayin’ how nice it would be if you was to call in, Oxbow. Young feller here’s lookin’ for you. He’s the Pinto Kid.’
Duggan’s face turned sheet-white as he dropped the bottle and his rifle. ‘Now wait a minute,’ he said, voice and body trembling in unison. ‘Easy now, Kid. I heard about you. We got no quarrel. I was only callin’ in anyway. Didn’t aim to meet you. No offence meant. I’ll be goin’ on.’ He turned and dashed through the doorway, vaulting onto a diminutive pony, hardly more than twice his own weight. ‘I gotta get myself a real hoss,’ he growled, lashing the lilliputian beast into a brisk stagger down the street.
‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ gasped the barman.
‘Probably,’ the Kid replied, fingering his twin Colts as he stepped out onto the sidewalk, where his ill-fated left boot was finally struck by a jet of tobacco juice.
‘Third time lucky,’ screeched the oldster, instantly falling asleep.
The Kid strolled to his horse, pulled a large sack from his saddle-roll, enbagged the wizened fogey and with a show of amazing strength whirled him one-handed for half a minute before flinging him across the street, where he thudded against the adobe wall of a store. Mounting his horse, the Kid left Bedrock. ‘Just another town,’ he soliloquised. ‘They’re all the same.’
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