SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER SEVEN
He was lightning fast. Those who knew about such things rated him the quickest man with a gun the West had ever seen. Most put him well ahead of Ben Thompson, Wes Hardin, John Ringo, Wyatt Earp and other such luminaries. Some averred that, had chronology allowed a match to take place, even the great Wild Bill Hickok would have been far outclassed by this man. It was often claimed that he possessed a quality more akin to sorcery than gunplay.
His name was John Widdup and now, at the age of twenty-seven, he was at the height of his powers. He had killed eleven men in fair, one-to-one encounters. All of his victims had been either known gunfighters or aspirants to that status. Not one of them had come anywhere near beating Widdup. Only two had even managed to get off a shot and in each case it had been hardly more than a post mortem reflex, one bullet piercing a ceiling, the other a floor. Of the remaining nine men, five had been struck down with guns barely clear of their holsters.
Though he had always been fascinated by side-arms and shooting, Widdup had not set out to seek notoriety. However, his story was not an unfamiliar one. After his prowess had been demonstrated, albeit unwillingly and against a rash third-rater, he had become a target. Men just wanted to try him out. They were usually reckless fellows, intent on establishing who was faster, even if the reward for their curiosity was death.
So it became a way of life for John Widdup. No matter where he appeared, some firebrand with more bravado than brain would show up, call him out and pay the price. In the early days, he went to some pains to avoid any looming showdown. Later, recognising inevitability when he saw it, he made no such effort, preferring to push matters to a swift conclusion. Like a certain monarch, he reasoned that, if a thing had to be done, it was best done quickly.
Widdup did not rely solely on the exceptional talent seemingly bestowed upon him by nature. Realising that he was bound to be the object of some attention, he practised daily, always finding some place where he could use his Colt Peacemaker, kept in a silk-smooth holster. His repertoire did not include any fancy tricks, his phenomenal speed and pin-point accuracy being all he needed. There were other men who could shoot fast and straight – some gave public exhibitions of their skill – but few had the special kind of nerve required to stand still and put a bullet into a man who was blasting their way with a similar intention.
Wherever Widdup went, his reputation travelled with him, precluding steady work. He had to find some other way of getting along, so he became an outlaw. Being a man of modest needs and not very materialistic, he didn’t operate on a grand scale. He went to work only when he needed money, which he never hoarded. Sometimes it seemed to be almost an afterthought with him. When his pockets were empty, he had to fill them. His idea was that the fewer jobs he pulled off, the fewer lawmen would hunt him. With rare exceptions, his method succeeded.
To any detached observer, a hostile confrontation between John Widdup and Thaddeus Dorf would have seemed a vanishingly unlikely event, for neither the circles not the circuits of the two men would normally have intersected. They were as different as cheese and chalk and neither was aware of the other’s existence. But fate has a way of arranging these things and the two dissimilar characters were brought together by its machinations.
As to social life, Widdup was decidedly a man of the lower strata. Generally, he avoided pretentious places. Dark, smoky saloons, sawdust-covered floors, scarred deal bars and cheap rooming houses were his preferred surroundings. With regard to territory, he spent nearly all his time in Arizona, New Mexico or Texas, with occasional forays across the border into Sonora or Chihuahua. Only twice in nearly a decade of wandering had he been further north, each time pursued by a single lawman. He had fought off the first and outrun the second.
To all appearances, Thaddeus Dorf was Widdop’s direct opposite. He travelled extensively, always by the most comfortable means available, and patronised only the best hotels and restaurants. Thick carpets, polished hardwood, good food and drink attracted him like magnets. As far as was possible in his part of the world, he moved in the more genteel levels of society. Where there was not sufficient refinement to suit him, he added a touch of class by his own presence, usually managing to induce others to raise their standards, rather than himself descending to theirs. He normally operated in the Northwest and Midwest, seldom reaching further south or west than Cheyenne. On the occasion of his meeting with Widdup, he had left his customary haunts only to cover for an indisposed colleague.
Dorf’s parents had migrated from Austria to the United States shortly after his birth. His father was a medical practitioner, his mother a music teacher. Dorf himself, though extremely intelligent and energetic, had no taste for the protracted study involved in emulating the career of either parent. He decided early in life that he would have to find a way of assuaging his wanderlust, while also making a living.
Having identified the problem, Dorf soon found a neat solution. He contacted a Philadelphia company, prominent in the manufacturing and importing of medical supplies, becoming its representative for the area in which he wished to operate. He was outstandingly successful and soon added more agencies to his portfolio, eventually becoming the conduit for five companies in the medical field.
Dorf was a small man, barely five feet five inches tall and slightly built. He was a fastidious fellow, always immaculately dressed and groomed. Already at thirty-nine, his trim moustache and neat, short, pointed black beard were sprinkled with grey, adding to his general air of distinction. His quick, decisive way of speaking and exceptional command of language gained him respect from almost everyone he met.
It was almost noon on a hot dry July day in the thriving little community of Canford, Colorado. Thaddeus Dorf had arrived the evening before, full of dark thoughts about the likely standard of accommodation awaiting him on his initial visit to the town. This was also his first appearance anywhere in this area, which he had long considered the realm of outer darkness. He was to be pleasantly surprised, for this was a place of growing stature. Mining, timber and cattle interests had combined to make Canford, affluent. This was no here today, gone tomorrow boom town. The buildings were of dressed stone, neatly laid brick or well-finished timber, all constructed with a view to posterity. Most of the people were smartly turned out, clearly enjoying prosperity and seemingly imbued with a fair measure of civic pride.
Most agreeable of all, from Thaddeus Dorf’s point of view, was that the town boasted an excellent hotel, with first-class dining facilities. Although he intended spending only two days in Canford, Dorf was delighted, for his aversion to rough living was profound and he had no intention of trying to overcome it. Owing to his peppery nature, he was not slow to voice his distaste for standards which fell short of his requirements. It was really quite surprising how he had developed the art of getting people to do things for him that they would not do for anyone else.
There was no cause for complaint at the Grand Western Hotel. Dorf had enjoyed a good night’s rest and an early breakfast and had done brisk business in the town. He was now sitting in the hotel barroom, sipping a first-rate whiskey and feeling as mellow as his irascible temperament permitted. He had changed his mind about his midday meal, having first decided to eat in the hotel, then being seduced by enticing smells from an elegant-looking restaurant along the street. He would stroll along there when he had finished his drink.
It was at this point that John Widdup arrived in Canford, having finally shaken off a lawman, after a long chase. In due course, the officer would report his conclusion that the pursuit had used up too much of his time and enough public funds. His decision may have been influenced by growing concern about what might happen if he were ever to catch up with the notorious gunman, for meek submission was not a reaction to expected from Widdup.
As always on entering a town new to him, the desperado approached the place with caution. He set his horse to a slow plod along the main street, his eyes roving everywhere, ticking off the positions of the amenities he was most likely to need and the places he might wish to avoid.
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Widdup would have sought out the meanest drinkery in town. That he did not do so on this occasion may have been attributable to his having noted the fact that this wealthy, tidy little community did not have much in the way of rough saloons. Or possibly he was simply too weary to make the effort to find one. Whatever the reason, he moved slowly northwards until he found himself outside the Grand Western Hotel.
He sat his horse for a full minute, taking stock. What he saw was a two-storey brick-built structure. At ground level, the entrance was flanked by two wide windows, divided into foot-square panes. The upper level had six narrower ones in similar style. Between the floors, running along most of the facade, was the name of the place, in large gilt letters.
Widdup nodded to himself. Too high-toned, but it would do for a quick drink before he saw to his horse. He dismounted, hitched the gelding, used his hat to beat dust from his clothes and crossed the sidewalk. Pushing open the pair of half-glazed doors, he entered a ten-foot square hallway, to the right of which was a small reception recess, now unattended. At the inner end were double doors with small glass panes, set from top to bottom in oak frames. Widdup opened the left-hand one, stepping quietly inside. It was a part of his survival equipment to be acutely observant and his eyes flickered around the room, taking in every significant detail.
He found himself in a combined lobby and bar, and noted that the interior of the place was as imposing as the frontage. The entrance hall, being midway along the street wall, created alcoves by the windows of what was overall a thirty-foot deep by twenty-five foot wide room.
The rear wall was taken up by, from left to right as incomers viewed it, a large iron stove, a door to a private room and a mahogany bar, fifteen feet long. The ceiling and all the walls were plastered and painted cream. Halfway along the left-hand wall were two further swing doors, matching those in the hallway and leading to the dining room. Hanging at each side of these doors was a painting. The right hand wall had neither door nor window. It bore two more paintings, between which hung a long-case rosewood clock, which had a pendulum with a large brass disc, swinging its tireless way through time.
Small circular oak tables and chairs were set on the polished pine floorboards around the perimeter of the room, leaving an open central space, most of which was covered by a large carpet with a multi-coloured medallion design in the middle, echoed in whorls at the corners, all on a dark-red background. Behind the bar was a shelf with an impressive array of bottles. Above this was a mirror, six feet wide by three feet high, bracketed by two advertising posters, one proclaiming the virtues of a leading make of whiskey, the other a brand of cigars, described as being fit for a king. This second one featured the head and upper body of a man in royal regalia, smoking one of the company’s products, his head adorned with a five-point crown, each tip set with a representation of a gemstone, half an inch in diameter.
Widdup took in all of this with one sweeping glance before turning his attention to the other occupants of the room. The barman, feigning activity with a towel, was tall, beefy and grey-haired. At a table close to the dining room doors, two middle-aged fellows with appearance of cattlemen sat, talking quietly. In the left alcove, seated alone, was a rotund man in a long black coat and flowered brocade vest. This was Judge Handley, who was not a judge and never would be, but was so called as a mark of respect. The only other person present was Thaddeus Dorf, sitting at a table near the clock.
Widdup was discomfited by these plush surroundings. For a moment, he hesitated, wondering whether he would be better advised to leave at once and seek some place better suited to his tastes. But thirst prevailed and he decided he would have one drink here, tend to his horse, then look elsewhere. He crossed the carpet, ordered a beer and a whiskey and took both glasses to a table between the cattlemen and Judge Handley. As soon as he had served Widdup’s drinks, the barman lifted his hinged access flap and hurried off into the dining area. He was absent for two minutes and looked ill at ease when he returned. A moment later, a man pushed one of the dining room doors half open, glanced at Widdup, turned his head to the barman, nodded, then withdrew quickly.
It was about then that noses began to twitch in the barroom. Judge Handley was the first affected, then the two cattlemen, then the barkeeper and finally, Thaddeus Dorf. Something was disturbing the pleasant atmosphere. It was a smell and it came from John Widdup. At the best of times, the dreaded gunman had never been a devotee of personal hygiene. Now, after a week-long dash over rough country in summer heat, even his none too particular standards had plumbed new depths. It wasn’t easy for one man to create a miasma sufficient to fill a room of that size, but Widdup managed it. He stank a mile high.
For a little while, no one seemed sure what, if anything, to do about this situation. The judge coughed, drummed his fingers on his table top and fidgeted. The barman began to hold his nose, as surreptitiously as a man can do such a thing. Finally, one of the cattlemen broke the silence. “Jesus,” he said, “somebody got a skunk around here, or something?”
The remark produced only an embarrassed silence for a moment, then the barman, looking alarmed, lifted his flap again and walked over to the two ranchers. Bending over their table, he mumbled something. Both men nodded. The barman went back to his post, pulled out a scrap of paper and a pencil, scribbled something and took it over to Judge Handley, who was sitting about eight feet from Widdup. The judge stared at the note for a moment, then stuffed it into his vest pocket, thanking the barman and dismissing him.
Thaddeus Dorf was becoming annoyed. He had timed his actions with a view to savouring the last of his whiskey, then tucking into a good meal. He did not like anything that interfered with his enjoyment of food, and a bad smell certainly did that. His irritability index was soaring. Any minute now, he intended to give vent to his feelings and there could be only one target.
The cattlemen began to mutter again, but only briefly, then everyone fell silent, leaving the ticking of the clock the only sound as all eyes turned to the noisome Widdup. It took several minutes, but the combined power of five intent stares finally got through to the gunman. He raised his head and looked around. He was not a particularly self-conscious man, but could hardly have failed to note that he was the object of attention. “Somethin’ wrong?” he asked gruffly.
Judge Handley, as senior man present, felt it incumbent upon him to handle this delicate situation. “Well, young man,” he said, shuffling uneasily, “I don’t mean to be impolite, but now that you mention it, I . . . er . . . well – ”
This was too much for the short-tempered Dorf. “Oh, for goodness sake,” he broke in, looking at Widdup. “It’s you, sir.”
“Me?” said Widdup.
“What about me?”
“Not to mince words,” snapped Dorf, who never minced them anyway, “it’s your odour. There is a noxious emanation coming from you, sir. It detracts from a man’s appetite.”
This was a little above Widdup’s head, for he was anything but erudite. He could not have coped with ‘noxious’, ‘emanation’, or ‘detracts’, even singly. All three coming together left him quite befuddled. All he was aware of was that Dorf’s remarks were derogatory. He therefore went into the state of defensive truculence that some men adopt when confronted with something obviously antagonistic but not quite comprehensible to them. “Just what do you mean, little man?” he grated nastily.
Dorf put down his glass. “I was under the impression that English was the common language here,” he said. “However, if you insist on simplicity, what I mean is that you smell like a billy goat. It’s offensive, sir.”
Apart from the relentless ticking of the clock, there was silence for a long tense moment, then Widdup kicked his chair away behind him, where it cracked against the wall, chipping out a chunk of plaster. Hauling himself to his slim, angular five-eleven, he moved forwards to the middle of the carpet, thumbs in his gun belt, greasy black leather vest open, facing the diminutive Dorf at a distance of ten feet. “Mister,” he said softly, “you must be some special kind o’ fool. I come in here peaceable. Now I guess I’ll have to plug you.”
“Excuse me, gents.” It was the barman. Lifting his flap yet again, he strode over to the still-seated Dorf, bending to whisper into the small man’s ear. “I don’t know what you’ve been drinkin’ apart from that whiskey, stranger,” he said, “but if I was you, I’d apologise right quick an’ try to get out of here, if he’ll let you. That’s John Widdup.”
Dorf was unimpressed. “Should that mean something to me?” he asked.
The barman was aghast. “Where’ve you been all your life, mister?” he said. “Widdup’s the fastest, meanest gunfighter in the West. He’ll kill you for sure, then maybe he’ll start in on the rest of us.”
Dorf pursed his lips. “Thank you,” he said, still unconcerned. “You can go now. And don’t worry about this fellow. He’ll not give any trouble.”
The baffled bartender scuttled back to relative security, beginning to move some of his more precious bottles from the backbar shelf to the floor. Having allowed him to get clear, Widdup glared at Dorf. “If you’re through jawin’, you’d best get ready for drawin’,” he snarled. “An’ if you ain’t armed, you must be even dumber than you look.”
Dorf stood, glancing around him. Something wasn’t quite to his liking. Deciding what it was, he pulled his chair away from the wall, repositioning it a couple of feet to the left, under the big clock. Then he sat down again, resting his well-barbered head against the base of the timepiece. He folded his arms and looked at Widdup. “Now, sir,” he said. “You seem to be envisaging a gunfight. I can positively assure you there will be no such event.”
Widdup shook his head. He wasn’t used to this kind of thing. He was accustomed to short words and fast guns. However, he was sure of one thing. When it came to shooting, a man might listen to talk and watch out for hand movements, but the most important thing was to look into the other fellow’s eyes. That was where the first indication would come. He returned Dorf’s stare, deciding to bring matters to a head. “You can take it sittin’ or standin’,” he said. “It’s all the same to me.”
Dorf stared back. “It is not all the same to me. I don’t intend to take it either way. Now, I repeat, you are clearly under the impression that there will be some kind of duel here. I tell you there will be nothing of the sort. You really must understand that.” It seemed to be important to Dorf to keep talking, to keep Widdup quiet. “What there will be is something quite different,” he went on, his previously lively voice having settled to a gentle monotone. “What is about to happen is this, Mr Widdup. I am going to continue sitting here. I shall not draw a gun, as there will be no need for that. No need at all. There will be no violence. No violence, Mr Widdup. As for yourself, you will, very slowly, take out your gun, then you will remove the bullets from it and put them in your coat pocket, then you will place the gun back in its holster, then you will leave and ride out of this town and you will not come back.”
Time seemed to stand still in the place as Widdup continued to gaze at the little salesman. Then Dorf went on: “Do it, Mr Widdup. Do it now.”
Another heart-stopping moment went by, then, astonishingly, Widdup did exactly what Dorf had told him to do. He drew the gun, looked at it as though he had never seen it before, shook out the bullets, pocketed them and re-holstered the weapon. Then he walked slowly out of the hotel. Seconds later, he passed, mounted, by the window where Judge Handley was sitting.
No one spoke for a moment, then everyone started talking at once. “Well, I never thought to see the like of that,” said the barman, wiping a towel over his sweat-beaded head.
“My God young man, you took an awful chance there,” said one of the cattlemen.
His companion gawked. “I just saw it, and I still don’t believe it. Was that some kind of a show you and Widdup put on to impress us?”
“No, sir,” said Dorf. “I never saw or heard of the man before.”
“What happened then? How come you outfaced a top gunslinger?”
“Oh, it’s simple enough,” said Dorf. “They’ve been working on this kind of thing for quite a while, especially in Europe. Originally it was called mesmerism, but some people refer to it as hypnotism. You see, I knew that gunmen always look one another in the eye when they’re about to draw. All I had to do was sit right under the clock there. You see how that pendulum swings. It’s perfect for such an experiment. Widdup couldn’t look into my eyes without taking in that as well. The poor fellow never had a chance.”
“Just a minute, though,” said Judge Handley. “I’ve heard of this kind of thing, but I always thought you couldn’t hypnotise a man, then make him do something contrary to his nature.”
“Well,” Dorf replied, “you’re right in a way, but that applies to attempts to make people commit unsocial acts they wouldn’t otherwise contemplate. All I did was to make Widdup do something quite innocent. There was nothing unusual about his either drawing or emptying his gun – he must have done that hundreds of times in the course of cleaning and maintaining it. You need to remember that although Widdup may have killed a number of men, the incidents concerned have taken up only a few minutes of his life. Most of the time, he’s probably much like any other fellow in this part of the world. There was no great danger here.”
Dorf was already leaving when the judge, still shaking his head in wonderment, called out: “Well, sir, I’m greatly relieved, but I still think you took a terrible risk. It’s just as well that there was no gunplay.”
Reaching the door, Dorf turned and drew a ten-dollar gold coin from a coat pocket. “You’ll need this,” he said, tossing it across to the barman.
“What for?” asked the bemused recipient. “You already paid, an’ anyway, after what you just did, you could have drinks on the house for a week.”
Dorf ignored the effusion and turned to the judge. “You’re wrong about one thing and right about another,” he said. “Wrong in supposing that I was in a hazardous position. I believe in having alternative plans in all situations. Right about gunfighting. The absence of that was just as well – for Mr Widdup.” With a speed that confounded the eye, Dorf produced from a shoulder holster a double action Colt .45, the big weapon looking incongruous in his dainty right hand. He swept up the gun and without any obvious aiming, emptied the five loaded chambers in a three-second blast of sound.
Sliding the gun back into its holster, he peered through the coiling smoke, then nodded, satisfied. The others peered too. They looked at the cigar poster, noting that all five jewels in the crown had been drilled through by Dorf’s bullets. His lips twitching in a brief smile, the little man pushed open the doors and departed.
* * *