OUT WEST : NUMBER TWO
Journey’s end. Billy Niddle stood outside the Nickel & Dime Saloon in Stovepipe, Idaho. Peering in from the sidewalk, he saw the head and shoulders of his arch-enemy, Dick Dobbins. Time for the showdown. Dobbins was slouched with his back to the bar, supporting himself with his elbows on the grubby pine surface. He was directly facing the batwing doors and staring out over them, but apparently not seeing Billy.
The Saloon’s owner, Jack Mitchell, had given the place its name because he charged the same price, fifteen cents, for all his drinks, the variable element being quantity. A customer got a glass of beer or a shot of rum or whiskey. Mitchell didn’t sell anything else. He ran a strictly spit and sawdust business.
Billy had decided that his method of entering the saloon would be swift, explosive and unconventional. He noted that, as usual with such establishments, there was a good deal of space below the doors. That would be his point of ingress. He drew his two six-shooters and dived across the boardwalk.
The barroom’s few occupants were certainly surprised by Billy’s arrival, but things didn’t go entirely as he had planned. His intention was to train both guns on the spot where he guessed Dick Dobbins’ knees would be, two feet or so below his belt buckle, drill his legs from under him and finish the job with a bullet through the heart.
As it happened, Dick’s legs were spread wide apart, so Billy’s two shots would not have done what he had in mind, even without the complication caused by the snagging of his right spur on the back of his left boot. This affected his plunge. He wound up with his chin scraping along the floorboards and the gun barrels crossed at an angle of about forty-five degrees. The two slugs made holes in the side walls, but not before the one travelling leftwards had shattered a full glass of beer which a miner was just lifting to enjoy his first drink of the day.
Dick Dobbins now noticed his hated foe. Perceiving at once that he had been presented with a golden opportunity to get rid of Billy, he hauled out his twin .45s. However, he had within the last hour consumed ten shots of Jack Mitchell’s whiskey. That accounted for why he hadn’t seen Billy earlier, over the saloon doors. It also influenced his draw and his aim. The former was extremely clumsy, the latter wildly inaccurate. Instead of shooting Billy through the head, as he intended, he missed by over six feet with both bullets – quite a feat as the distance between his guns and Billy’s head was barely ten feet.
Looking up from his prone position, Billy realised that he had a second chance to down his man. He pushed himself up to all fours, but that was as far as he was going to get for the time being. The miner who had been deprived of his beer snatched an almost full glass from in front of his drinking companion and hurled it at Billy. It was right on target, striking the rising man’s left temple and dropping him back flat on the floor, barely conscious.
Now the glassy-eyed Dick Dobbins set himself for another crack at Billy. Once again he aimed his guns as well as his befuddled condition permitted. ‘Goodbye, Niddle,’ he yelled, at the very moment that Jack Mitchell grabbed his long, greasy hair from behind and yanked it hard. This intervention deflected Dick’s second pair of shots, both of which went through the ceiling.
Mitchell then produced a sawn-off shotgun from under the bar and bellowed at the trigger-happy duo to drop their weapons. The instruction was obeyed by Dick and unnecessary for Billy, who had lost contact with his anyway. ‘Now, boys,’ said Mitchell, ‘I want you to stand up straight, facing one another, a yard apart – and no fighting or I’ll blast the pair of you.’
The two men did as they’d been told, and Mitchell, still holding the shotgun, came out from behind the bar and stood by them, taking up the stance of a prize-fight referee about to lecture the combatants before hostilities. ‘Now, boys,’ he said, ‘I’m going to tell you a couple of home truths, then we’ll settle this matter.’
Keeping a wary eye on both men, Mitchell picked up their guns and put them on the bar, then turned to resume his monologue. ‘I remember the pair of you from Abilene,’ he said. You were the laughing stock of the town there and I guess you have been in other places too. The first thing you need to know is that as gunslingers you’re the worst operators west of the Mississippi. I doubt that either of you could hit this saloon from across the street even when you’re sober, which most of the time you aren’t. Second thing is that I know you’re feuding over a girl you both admired. You can forget her. She’s keeping company with a man of substance and wouldn’t give you the time of day if she had two watches to do it with.’
Billy and Dick began to speak at the same time, but Mitchell silenced them with a raised hand. ‘I’m not through yet,’ he snapped. ‘Third thing I have to say is that it’s time for somebody to tell you that in addition to your uselessness with handguns, you’re probably the dumbest pair of jackasses in the United States. Still, it’s no crime to be stupid. I guess you were born that way.’
Michell then picked up the sixguns from the floor, put them on the bar and fiddled with them for a couple of minutes before throwing one to Billy and another to Dick. ‘There you are,’ he said, taking up the other two himself and pointing one of them at each man. ‘These two guns I’m holding are fully loaded. You have one bullet each. Holster the irons and walk away to opposite side walls, turn around and face one another.’
The pair obeyed and Mitchell went on: ‘Now, since you’re so keen on a gunfight, what we’re going to have here is a good, old-fashioned duel, only we’ll put a twist on it. You’re going to take out your guns, hold them nice and level and spin the cylinders, then drop the hammers and reholster your weapons. When I kick the bar with the back of my heel, you’ll draw, raise your guns to shoulder level, arms straight out, then shoot, just once. If you both survive, we’ll repeat that, up to six times if necessary, and if you both get through that, we’ll call it even. Understood?’
Spellbound, Billy and Dick nodded. When they were ready, Mitchell kicked the bar and the duellers drew and fired, then again and again, six times in all. No live round was discharged. Mitchell called the two men together again. ‘Right, lads, it’s over,’ he said. ‘Not that I care a cuss word one way or the other what you think, but are you satisfied?’
‘I am,’ Billy replied.
‘Me too,’ Dick responded, but what was all that about one shot at a time and the cylinder spinning? Did you think that made anything fairer?’
‘Yeah,’ said Billy. ‘I’d like to know that too.’
Mitchell chuckled. ‘I already told you what a pair of fools you are. You think you’re gunfighters and you don’t know the first thing about that kind of game. Let me explain. There was only one bullet in each of your guns. And what happens when you put a slug into a chamber of a sixgun, hold the cylinder level, spin it, then shoot?’
Dick shrugged. ‘You take your chance, one in six.’
‘Right, and sooner or later the lead flies,’ Billy added.
Jack Mitchell shook his head. ‘You’re wrong,’ he said. ‘The fact is that the loaded chamber is heavier than the others, so it goes to the bottom every time you spin the cylinder, and the hammer never falls on it. Barring an accident, you could have pulled your triggers all day without either of you coming to harm.’
Billy and Dick stood dumbstruck as Mitchell dropped their second guns onto the bar, then turned back to them. ‘So, you two heroes of the West, I pronounce your dispute over. Now shake hands and smile, and if you want to leave this town alive, you’d better really mean it.’
Billy and Dick shook hands, then smiled – and they really meant it.
After the two former enemies left the saloon, arm in arm, the miner who’d thrown his companion’s beer glass at Billy addressed Mitchell. ‘Hey, Jack, what about that stuff with the heavier chamber and cylinder spinning? Does it really work the way you said?’
Mitchell grinned. ‘That’s what I was told by a gunsmith in Kansas. I’ve no idea whether it’s true or not, but it worked this time, didn’t it?’
* * *