Authors: William W. Johnstone
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
“John Wesley Hardin! I'm calling you out, John Wesley!”
My friend turned to me and his left eyebrow arched the way it always did when his face asked a question.
“All right. I'll take a look,” I said, laying aside my copy of Mr. Dickens'
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit
, partially set, as you know, on our very own western frontier.
I rose from the table and limped to the saloon's batwing doors, more a tangle of broken and missing slats than door. I guess so many heads were rammed through those batwings that nobody took the trouble to repair them any longer.
Three men wearing slickers and big Texas mustaches stood in the dusty street. All were armed with heavy Colt revolvers carried high on the waist, horseman-style. They glanced at me, dismissed me as something beneath their notice, and continued their wait.
I told John Wesley what I saw and he said, “Ask them what the hell they want.”
“They're calling you out, Wes. That's what they want.”
“I know it, Little Bit. But ask them anyhow.” Wes stood at the bar, playing with a little calico kitten, the warm schooner of beer at his elbow growing warmer in the east Texas heat.
The railroad clock on the wall ticked slow seconds into the quiet and the bartender cleared his throat and whispered to the saloon's only other customer, “James, this won't do.”
The gray-haired man nodded. “A bad business.” He stared through the window. “Those men are pistol fighters.”
He was not ragged, as most of us Texans were that late summer of 1870. His clothes were well worn, but clean, and spoke of a good wife at home. He might have been a one-loop rancher or a farmer, but he could have been anything.
I stepped outside into the street, if you could call it that.
The settlement of Honest Deal was a collection of a few raw timber buildings sprawled hit or miss along the bank of the west fork of the San Jacinto River, a sun-scorched, wind-blown scrub town waiting desperately for a railroad spur or even a stage line to give it purpose and a future.
I blinked in the sudden bright light, then took the measure of the three men. They were big, hard-eyed fellows. The oldest of them had an arrogant look to him, as though he hailed from a place where he was the cock o' the walk.
That one would take a heap of killing, I figured. They all would.
I swallowed hard. “Mr. Hardin's compliments, and he wishes to know what business you have with him.”
“Unfinished business,” the oldest man said.
Another, tall and blond and close enough in looks and arrogance to be his son, said, “Gimp, get back in there and tell Hardin to come out. If he ain't in the street in one minute, we'll come in after him.”
The man's use of the word
surprised me. I thought the steel brace on my left leg covered by my wool pants was unnoticeable. Unless I walked, of course. I'd only taken a step into the street, so I could only assume that the tall man was very observant.
Wes was like that, observant. All revolver fighters were back in those days. They had to be.
Measuring him, it seemed to me that the younger man was also one to step around, unless you were mighty gun slick.
“I'll tell Mr. Hardin what you said.” I smiled at the three men. I had good teeth when I was younger, the only part of my crooked, stunted body that was good, so I smiled a lot. Showing them off, you understand.
I figured I knew why those three men didn't want to come into the saloon after Wes unless they had to. The place was small, little bigger than a railroad boxcar, and gloomy, lit by smoking, smelly, kerosene lamps. Only Yankee carpetbaggers could afford the whale oil that burned brighter without smoke or stink. If shooting started inside, the concussion of the guns would extinguish the lamps and four men would have to get to their work in semidarkness and at point-blank range.
Against a deadly pistol fighter like Wes, those three fellows were well aware that no one would walk out of the saloon alive. They wanted badly to kill Wes, but outside where they would have room to maneuver and take cover if necessary.
I can't say as I blamed them. A demon with ol' Sammy's revolver was Wes, fast and accurate on the draw and shoot.
That's one of the reasons I idolized him. I'd never met his like before . . . or since.
Well, I turned to go back into the saloon and tell him what the three gentlemen outside wanted, but I'd taken only one clumping step when Wes stepped around the corner of the saloon, a smile on his face and a .44 1860 Army model Colt in each hand.
All his life, Wes favored those old cap-and-ball pistols, and he would often say that they were both wife and child to him.
He wore black pants held up by suspenders and a vest of the same color over a collarless white shirt. Shoulder holsters bookended his manly chest and he sported a silver signet ring on the little finger of his left hand, the hallmark of the frontier gambler.
“You fellows wish to speak with me?” he said, making the slight bow that he considered the stamp of a well-bred Southern gentleman.
Well, the three men had been caught flatfooted and they knew it.
The oldest of them was the first to recover. He pushed his slicker away from his gun and said, “You know why we're here, Hardin.”
“Damn right you do,” the blond man said.
They were on the prod, those two, and right then I knew there would be no stepping back from this, not for Wes, not for anybody.
“I'm afraid you have the advantage over me,” Wes said. “I've never seen you gentlemen before in my life.”
“You know us, damn you,” the older man said.
“We're here for my brother Sonny,” the blond man said.
Wes smiled again, showing his teeth.
Lord-a-mercy, but that was a bad sign. John Wesley was never a smiling man . . . unless he planned to kill somebody.
“I've never heard the name Sonny, nor can I attach it to a remembered face,” he said. “How do you spell it, with an
“You're pleased to make a joke.” This from the man who hadn't spoken before, a lean, hawk-faced man whose careful eyes had never left Wes, reading him and coming to a decision about him.
He was a gun, that one, He'd be mighty sudden and would know some fancy moves.
“I made a good joke?” Wes asked. “Then how come I don't hear you gentlemen laughing?” His Colts were hanging loose at his sides as though he had all the time in the world.
“You go to hell.” The hawk-faced man went for his gun.
Years later, I was told that the lean man was probably a ranny by the name of Hugh Byrd who had a vague reputation in Texas as a draw-fighter.
Word was that he'd killed Mason Lark up El Paso way. You recall Lark, the Denver bounty hunter with the Ute wife? Back then nobody considered Lark a bargain and even John Wesley once remarked that the man was fast on the draw and a proven man killer.
Well, for reasons best known only to himself, Byrdâif that really was his nameâdecided to commit suicide the day he drew down on Wes.
His gun hadn't cleared leather when two .44 bullets clipped half-moons from the tobacco tag that hung over the pocket of his shirt and tore great wounds in his chest.
I didn't watch him fall. My eyes were on the other two.
The blond man got off a shot at Wes, but he'd hurried the draw and the slug kicked up a startled exclamation point of dirt an inch in front of the toe of Wes's right boot.
The towhead knew he'd made a bad mistake. His face horrified, he took a step back and raised his revolver to correct his aim.
But the young man's hurried shot had been the kind of blunder you can't make in a gunfight . . . and Wes made him pay for it. His bucking Colts hammering with tremendous speed and accuracy, he slammed three or four bullets into the man's upper chest and belly.
Gagging on his own blood, the yellow-haired fellow dropped to his knees.
Wes ignored him. He swung on the older man who hadn't made a move for his gun. His reactions slower than the others, the fight had gone too fast for him and there was no way he was going to play catch-up.
He tossed his Colt away and raised his hands to waist level. “I'm out of it, John Wesley. Now you've killed both my sons and I want to live long enough to grieve for them.”
The man was not scared or afraid to die, but I knew living would be hard for him, each passing day another little death. Blood had drained from his features and I looked into the gray, blue-shadowed face of a corpse.
“No, mister, you're in it,” Wes said, smiling. “There ain't a way out. You brought it, and now you pay the piper.” He raised his Colt, took careful aim and shot the old man between the eyes.
The blond man was clinging to life, coughing up black blood. He turned his head as the older man fell into the dirt beside him. “Pa!” He reached out and put his hand on his father's chest. His mouth was a shocked, scarlet O. “Are you kilt dead, Pa?”
“Yeah, he's kilt dead,” Wes said. “Now go join him in hell.”
The Colt roared again . . . and then only the desert wind made a sound.
I reckon the whole population of the town, maybe a dozen men and a couple women, young'uns clutching at their skirts, stood in the street and stared at the three sprawled bodies. The faces of the men and women were expressionless. They looked like so many painted dolls as they tried to come to grips with the violence and sudden death that had come into their midst.
“This won't do,” the bartender said. “This is a job for the law.” He glanced hopefully around the crowd, but nobody had listened to him.
Fat blowflies had already formed a black, crawling crust on the gory faces of the dead and I fancied I already got a whiff of the stench of decay.
The bartender, who seemed to have appointed himself spokesman for the whole town, looked at Wes. “Who were they, mister?”
“Damned if I know.”
The bartender made it official. He reached into his vest pocket and took out a lawman's star that he pinned to his chest. The star looked as though it had been cut from the bottom of a bean can. “I heard one of them say they were here for Sonny,” the bartender-sheriff said. “You ever hear of him?”
Wes shook his head. “No, I don't reckon I have. Unless his name was spelled with a
“You ever hear of a man named Sunny, with a
“No. I don't reckon I have.” With every eye on him, Wes made one of those grandstand plays that helped make him famous. He spun those big Colts and they were still spinning when he dropped them into their holsters. “Sheriff, a man in my line of business makes a lot of enemies. Hell, I can't keep track of all the men who want to kill me.”
“And what is your business?” the sheriff said.
“I'm a shootist,” Wes said.
Me, I looked into John Wesley's eyes then. There was no meanness, no blue, luminous light I've seen in a man's eyes when he takes pleasure in a killing . . . but there was something else.
Wes looked around the crowd, his gaze moving from face to stunned face, and his eyes were bright, questioning.
Look at me! Look at me everybody. Have you ever seen my like before?
Right then, John Wesley was Narcissus at the pool, the man who fell madly in love with his own reflection.
And the people around him, as soon as the gunshots stopped ringing in their ears, fed his vanity.
All of a sudden, men were slapping him on the back, shaking his hand, telling him he'd done good. The women looked at him from under lowered eyelashes and wondered what it would be like to take a gladiator to bed.
Even the sheriff stepped off the distance between Wes and the dead men and grinned at the crowd. “Ten paces, by God. And three men hurled into eternity in the space of a moment!”
This drew a cheer, and Wes bowed and grinned and basked in the adulation.
He was but seventeen years old and he'd killed eleven white men.
The newspapers had made him a named gunfighter, up there with the likes of Longley and Hickok, and he'd have to live with it.
And me, I thought,
But in the end they'll kill you, Wes. One day the folks will forget all about you and that will be your death.