OUT WEST : NUMBER FIFTEEN
‘Yessirs,’ croaked the ancient raconteur. Surrounded by listeners, he was the only person seated in the saloon’s back room, made available so that he could give the authentic account of an incident involving a long-dead pistolero. ‘Yessirs,’ he repeated, his toothless mouth expelling an orange pip at almost eye-defying speed. The projectile hit a spittoon, described a half-circle inside the rim and whizzed off to strike the nose of a man who, in trying to avoid the impact, thumped his head against a doorpost and consequently lost interest in the proceedings.
‘Yessirs,’ the old-timer said yet again to his audience, now reduced to eight, one being a large woman whose general Wagnerian aspect was accentuated by a helmet-style hat atop a huge coil of fair hair. ‘And ma’am,’ added the oldster, noting the unexpected presence of a lady. ‘I mind well the time when Three-Gun Kellaway come to town. Showdown was right there.’ He pointed an arthritic finger at the doorway to the barroom. ‘He come here . . .’
‘What was that?’ The interjection came from a fresh-faced youth, bearing a notepad and pencil.
‘What was what?’ snapped the taleteller.
‘You said Three-Gun Kellaway.’
‘Well, so what?’
‘Sir,’ said the young fellow, ‘I’ve known of two-gun this and two-gun that, but I never yet heard of three-gun anybody.’
‘Son,’ snarled the oldster, mustering as hostile a gleam as his rheumy eyes could manage, ‘first place, I’m tellin’ this story. Second place, you’re still wet behind the ears an’ third place, you won’t never hear much of anythin’ if you keep interruptin’ folks.’
‘Sorry’, said the chastened youngster. ‘It’s just that I’ve only recently arrived from the East and this is my first assignment. I have to get my facts right or my editor will be mad at me. I was wondering how a man was able to handle three guns.’
‘Well, if you listen you’ll find out,’ retorted the wizened narrator, his temper fraying rapidly. ‘As I was goin’ to say when you busted up my thinkin’, this Three-Gun Kellaway was a plumb desperate character. Killed over a dozen men in his time. Anyway, he come here lookin’ for Bad Billy Brewster, an’ he was loaded for bear.’
‘Loaded for what?’ the reporter broke in again.
‘Bear,’ gritted the anecdotist, grimly curbing his ire.
‘What does that mean, exactly?’ the diffident newshound asked.
‘Darn it,’ yelled the venerable one. ‘Means Kellaway was an ornery critter an’ more’n a mite proddy. How the hell are you goin’ to report this if you don’t speak English?’ The oldster’s voice, squawky at the best of times, rose to a falsetto warble.
‘Beg pardon,’ mumbled the scribe.
‘What happened?’ This from the large woman, whose tongue was running eagerly around parted lips as she envisioned blood soaking the sawdust.
‘Well, I’m comin’ to that, ain’t I?’ screeched the crusty historian, his face now alarmingly purple as he yanked at the chair arms until he realised that he was not in a rocker.
‘I’ll bet they shot it out,’ said the woman, her imagination running riot. ‘There must have been gore everywhere.’
‘That’s what I came all the way from Philadelphia to find out,’ said the eager reporter.
‘Naw,’ said one of the men, a lanky, lugubrious fellow. ‘Wasn’t like that at all, way I heard it.’
‘Well, you wouldn’t know,’ chimed in a short fat man, waving a large cherrywood pipe, from which sparks were scattering around the company. ‘Was before your time, anyway.’
‘I heard it different, too,’ put in a third man. ‘I was told that Bad Billy Brewster couldn’t face three guns, so he skedaddled out of town and Kellaway knew it, so he wasn’t taking much of a chance.’
‘Nope,’ drawled another. ‘Feller told me they called off the fight an’ spent the night drinkin’ whiskey, right here in this saloon.’
‘That don’t square with what I heard’, said the fifth man, the town undertaker. ‘Old Tom Boone was here an’ he told me what went on. Just before he died, it was. He said Kellaway shot off his own kneecap when he tried to draw that third gun.’
‘Well,’ said the sixth and last of the local men, ‘I reckon you’re all wrong. My great uncle Dan worked with Kellaway on a little gold-prospecting. Before they split up, Kellaway admitted to Dan that he’d run off when he heard that Bad Billy Brewster had got hold of a Gatling gun and aimed to make a sieve of him.’
A babble broke out, which intensified until the young reporter called for order. ‘Come now, gentlemen . . . and madam,’ he cried. ‘We seem to have a number of different versions of the event. As I understand it, the only person still alive around here who was present at the time is telling the story. Let establish the truth from him. Sir?’
They all turned their attention to the old man, but it was too late. As a result of being unable to get a word in edgeways, that testy chronicler, overcome by exasperation, had breathed his last.
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