Long since out of Oklahoma and making decent progress down through Texas, we decided to stop fer a night–maybe even two–in Waco. The town was a bit on the big side to suit us, but the horses could use a break, stabling with real oats, good prairie hay, and all the water they could drink.
Nor would it harm us overmuch to sleep on real beds, especially since Callie’s boasted No Bedbugs and actually made good on its promise.
We were dawdling over breakfast when we overheard the talk going on a few tables over.
“Gunfight…yeah, high noon…”
I looked at Tam, and he looked at me. “Friend,” I called out, getting the attention of the speaker, “Did I jist hear you say something about a gunfight? Not trying to eavesdrop, but that word does sort of snag your attention.”
“Yes, indeed, sir!” The fellow not only acknowledged my query; he was one of them eager gossip spreaders who can’t wait to spill the beans wherever them beans might fall. Town man through and through. Before I knew what I’d started, he’d left his own table and come right on over to ours like he owned it. Though he did ask before he sat down; I’ll give him that much.
“May I?” He indicated a chair. I nodded, and he launched his news flash before his butt even hit the seat.
“It seems there’s to be a shootout between two renowned shootists at high noon, right here in Waco! Isn’t that something?”
I flinched, not because of the news but because of this dude’s way of punctuating his sentences.
“It’s certainly something,” Tam put in calmly, “But doesn’t the local law enforcement establishment take a bit unkindly to that sort of thing within the city limits?”
“Oh, indeed! Yes indeed! But everyone with a badge is out of town with the posse! You know, chasing the Yerby gang?”
“Ah indeed! Why, those Yerbys got away with a lot of money! About the gunfight?”
“Yes,” I groaned, “Do please go on.” Tam actually looked amused at this guy. I wanted to throttle him–the townie or my partner; either one would do.
“Oh, it’s quite the thing! This one shootist, I didn’t catch his name, but he came in two nights ago? Staying over at the Longhorn? He’s kind of quiet, they say, but it’s the quiet ones you have to look out for?”
I slumped down in my chair, wondering if I could maybe tunnel through the floor to escape this idiot. Finally, my mind jist sort of shut down.
“Okay, Tam, sum it up for me if you would. I jist couldn’t listen to him no more.”
“Easy enough.” The tale teller grinned. I’d have sworn he was laughing at me, inside. “You’ve heard of a gunhand by the name of Andy Clay?”
“Yeah. Gun fer hire, reputed backshooter but never proven. Wears a crossdraw rig.”
“That’s the one. It seems he’s riding in from the east this morning. He has some beef with the man who’s already here. When he heard the fellow was in Waco, he sent word ahead that he was calling the guy out.”
“No word on the other man’s name?”
“Not so far. Guess he’s not giving it. Brendon would know, of course, but he’s not the talkative type.”
No, he wasn’t. Brendon Burflage, owner of the Longhorn Hotel and Eats, specialized in taking care of his customers, including guarding their privacy. You could be the President of the United States or the lowest saddle tramp on the Chisholm Trail; if you had the price of a room and reasonable table manners, your secrets were safe with Brendon.
“So…we gonna hang around fer it?”
“Sure. Why not? It’ll be nice fer a change, being a spectator instead of a participant.”
He had a point there.
“Well, that means we’ve got time fer a tale. What’s the special of the day?”
“Oh…I thought maybe I’d tell you about the most dangerous man on the planet. How’s that sound?”
“Hey, Injun lover!”
I turned, not swiftly, but not too slowly, either. You don’t want to look spooked at such a moment, but giving a bully time enough to think about shooting you in the back isn’t such a good idea, either.
“Absolutely,” I replied in a calm, friendly tone. “It’s good to be recognized.”
That confused Hiram Odders fer a second or two, giving me time enough to size up the situation. The girl at my side, Jenny Smokes, was short and squat. We communicated well enough by sign, and we were friends–but not lovers.
Jenny’s bloodline, near as I could figure from what she’d told me, was completely without white taint but covered a fair span of the red race. She had a lot of parts to her. Part Apache, part Cree, part Navajo, part this, part that–but no part Cherokee, as she’d proudly made clear.
“Those Cherokee whoopee with everybody,” she’d signed, “except for my ancestors. We avoided those dam Cherokee people.”
Jenny was kind of low Soul on the totem pole in Fort Benton, helping in the kitchen at Halter’s Eats in return fer two meals a day but having to sleep with others of “her kind” in the collection of wornout tipis and brush leantos outside of town. These people had nothing. Many of them–perhaps most of them–had discovered the white man’s firewater and paid the price.
Only Jenny Smokes, of them all, had never touched a drink and retained enough sense of self to make her way in the world.
But the trek to Halter’s each morning and the return each evening was fraught with danger.
Danger by the name of Hiram Odders.
“I think,” Hiram said–which was a flat-out lie–“maybe I’ll jist stomp you a bit.” Suiting action to words, he started toward us in that rolling gait of his.
Not terribly original, but about what I expected. “If you come on past that hitch rail,” I said, soft enough that he had to strain to hear me, “you or any one of them three punks following you like little piggies following their mommy, I will drop you where you stand.”
I would have to. It’d take a heap of explaining after, but my surgically repaired shoulder only had seven days of healing to its credit since the operation.
It took him another step or two before what I’d said registered on what passed fer his mind, but I’d allowed fer that. He and his posse got themselves stopped in a little clump a good five yards the other side of the hitch rail. The forty feet between us jist happened to be the same distance Daniel had me practicing at, so that was good.
Now, I should mention about Hiram. He’d come up the Missouri River on the summer’s last steamboat as a crew member but had been run off by the captain the minute they reached Fort Benton. Which spoke well fer the captain’s good judgment. At a guess, he looked to be in his midtwenties, fat as anything, not prone to bathing, and he sweated a good deal more than most men–even today, with a downright balmy thirty-one degrees showing on Doc Chouteau’s thermometer. The warm weather was a good thing; I’d not have to worry about a heavy buffalo robe getting in the way when it came time to draw.
Hiram was a bully, and he also fancied himself a riverboat gambler. Of all things. He finally found his voice…fer what it was worth.
“You’d gun down an unarmed man, Injun lover?”
“You ain’t unarmed, Oddball Odders, and you ain’t a man.”
Truth be told, I needn’t have been so harsh. What I’d said was accurate enough, but I knew full well the combination of calling him Oddball to his face instead of behind his back, calling him a liar fer failing to mention them three hidden guns, and insulting his manhood–that’d be enough to set him off fer sure. The thing was, I didn’t much care. My shoulder was healing fine, at least according to Doc Chouteau, but it was taking too long fer my taste. The state of the people in what local whites were starting to call Ragtown grated on me something fierce.
Mainly, though, Hiram Oddball Odders had been beating up on drunken Indians fer his sporting pleasure on a fairly regular basis. One man, a Cree who’d been a respected warrior among his people before Demon Rum got hold of him, was stomped to death. Jenny Smokes had not only been waylaid repeatedly but had also been raped many times. In the new, raw town of Fort Benton, Montana, farthest inland port in the world, there was no justice fer a mere blanket-ass Injun slut. If you wore the wrong color skin in this place, you were asking for it.
Odders gestured with his hand, and two of his three followers finally started spreading out, realizing real action was about to commence. The third fool stayed almost directly behind his leader, which–had he but realized—was jist about the worst place he could have picked to be at this moment.
Fat Hiram kind of puffed up, made a real attempt at looking all indignant in an attempt to explain why he put his fists on his hips. In reality, of course, what he’d done is shove his coat out of the way so’s he could reach fer the piece holstered at the small of his back. I couldn’t shoot him quite yet, though. We had witnesses by this time, half a dozen or more, lined up along the buildings to either side of the snowpacked street, so that was good.
But I’d been practicing, 100 rounds per day or more, and Daniel made sure every one of them cartridges paid its way. He’d also warned me to beware my reputation.
“I can see it coming, Tam,” he’d told me. “You’re greasy fast by nature, so our focus needs to be on smooth, absolutely flawless technique. Ninety-nine percent of shootists out there are doing it wrong. They git into bad habits from the git-go and never git out of ’em. You come to me clean, never having handled a pistol. What that means is, you’re going to end up with a rep. It can’t be helped. And you’d best make sure every time you go fer your hogleg that if you’ve got witnesses, nobody sees you reach first. Ain’t nothing wrong with reaching first, understand, but you don’t wan’t to be seen doing it.”
Made sense to me.
The follower who’d shifted the farthest to my right, Oddball’s left, went fer his gun–and it turned out he was the one with the blazing speed…sort of. He was a little dude, and that big Colt Walker made him look even littler. There was no holster involved; he jist pulled the thing from behind his belt.
But he never should have brought a Walker to a gunfight.
“They’ve cleared you completely, Tam.” Daniel shucked his wraps, pulling up a chair as Jeff Halter headed to our table with the coffee pot. “Not that there was any doubt, what with half the people who’ve come to know you watching the thing go down. In fact, old Culbertson himself told me he’d be happy to hire you to Marshal the place iffen you’d care to hang around after your shoulder’s finished healing.”
Jeff overheard that. “He wouldn’t dare, Daniel. Have you seen the way Jenny Smokes looks at our famous shootist since he defended her honor? She’s got the baddest case of MHS the missus and I’ve ever seen on a female.”
My shooting instructor jist chuckled, but the Halters were feeding me fer free these days, so I had to play along. “MHS?”
“Mooneyed Hee-ro Worship!” Chuckling at his own joke, the proprietor of Halter’s Eats stumped back toward the kitchen–where sure enough, I could see the young mixed-blood Indian-but-no-dam-Cherokee girl peeping out through the serving window when she was supposed to be washing dishes. Jeff was right; even had I wished to hang aroung Fort Benton long term, I wouldn’t have dared.
The good Lord save me from worshipful women.
I didn’t think she’d go so far as to show up at Daniel’s cabin, where I was staying fer the duration. Would she?
“Here,” the blocky man said, shoving several pieces of paper across tthe table, “Take a look at these. Doc Chouteau caught me on my way past his place, asked me to give ’em to you.”
Now, this was interesting. The surgeon doubled as an undertaker when he was in town, mostly fer the benefit of being able to study the bodies of the recently deceased. That man had one serious case of medical curiosity, no doubt about it. Only a few of us, those Georges Chouteau trusted not to lynch him fer doing what he did, knew about his dissection practices. He’d cut a dead man open, trace the path of a bullet or a blade, inspect the damages as it were.
The papers in my hands were summaries of how my enemies had died.
Bobby Vance–that had been the man with the Colt Walker, who’d drawn first. The slug from my Colt Paterson had taken a chunk out of one rib, plowed through his heart, nicked a back rib on the way out. There’d also been a fair bit of his face missing from the Walker rupturing when he triggered it.
Them Walkers, Daniel assured me, were known fer that. The biggest, most powerful horse pistol ever made, they’d been designed to ride in saddle holsters fer Army use but had been plagued with problems from the beginning.
“You’d already killed him anyway, Tam,” my friend assured me. “Ain’t no man alive can move four pounds of horse pistol from behind his belt and beat you. I been digging around some. Vance had a rep. Out-quicked a number of lesser lights here and there, before he come to Benton. Likely made the mistake of believing his own press. Figured he was greased lightning and could afford to add the extra intimidation factor that monster shooter give him.”
“Huh,” I said, and picked up the next sketch. “Georges says here, I killed two men with one bullet.”
“You did. I was jist close enough to see your shot sequence. Not your draw; ain’t nobody got an eye quick enough to do that. But you’d figured it right, that Bobby Vance was the critter to watch, so you rightfully took him out first. One shot, one kill. Damn, this coffee’s hot.”
“Odders, now, he was about the slowest wannabe shootist I ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen a few. He dragged that iron out from behind his back like he was stirring molasses in January. About the time your first round was ventilating Vance, he got the thing the way around to his side. You can bet I could see his draw. Matter of fact, I almost thought he was one of them still life paintings; he surely weren’t making progress much faster than a bowl of fruit.
“Your bullet didn’t hit his heart, as you’ll see from them sketches, but close enough. Took out the main artery supplying blood to the heart and shut things down pronto anyway. Close enough fer guvmint work.”
“Yeah, okay, but, how did–oh.” Chouteau’s illustration made it clear. The fool who’d stayed kind of tucked in behind his fearless leader had been crouched down a bit. He must have figured Hiram Odders to be fat enough to stop a bullet or two, but he’d been fatally wrong. The bullet from my pistol hadn’t been flying very fast when it entered through the fellow’s right eye socket and came to rest against the back of his skull after mushing his brains around a bit.
Fast enough, though.
There were no notes on the fourth man. He’d been armed, but he’d never touched his weapon. Whoever he’d been–new in the area and to Oddball Odder’s personal posse, they said–he’d last been seen galloping out of town on his mule, heading south. Multiple witnesses made note of the mule’s displeasure at this turn of events. Said the critter’s ears were laid back something fierce and it was braying on the run.
“Confession time,” I told Daniel.
“I don’t remember the shooting.”
He jist sat there, getting scalded with every sip of that coffe and taking it down anyway. My friend was a bit strange sometimes.
“Daniel, I blacked out. It’s happened before. When I smashed up that cougar with that Kennedy double rifle, I didn’t remember doing it. Still don’t to this day. I remember keeping one eye on Odders but knowing it would be Vance who’d kill me if anybody did. I remember his reaching fer his Walker and knowing it was time to git moving. And then nothing. Next thing I knew, three men were lying dead on the street in front of me and the fourth was running fer his life, slipping once and falling on his face, scrambling back up, and all that. I remember the walnut grip of my gun in my hand, how right it felt, how it fit me with my thumb on the hammer but the trigger folded, jist waiting to see if I’d need to haul that hammer back one more time. But I don’t remember drawing or firing, not even once.”
Daniel looked thoughtful at that. “Let me consider this a minute or two, Tam. How be we order supper, wrap ourselves around some steaks and baked potatoes, maybe a piece of Maybelle’s most excellent rhubarb pie. But don’t git worried while I’m doing my pondering. I’m jist trying to remember something.”
Sounded good to me.
“I remembered,” he said. Stuffed and drowsy from a full belly in front of the roaring fireplace kept well stoked by the proprietor of Halter’s Eats, it took me a moment to remember what we’d been talking about.
Oh. Yeah. My blackouts.
“I’ve studied a fair amount of history, Tam, especially history pertaining to combat. That, and I’m still here to tell about it after getting myself personally involved in prob’ly close to a hunnert fights to the death–fists, feet, blades or bullets, it’s all the same thing.”
“I can relate to that,” I told him.
“I’ve no doubt you can. Now, yours is a complex case. First, you need to know there’s two types of fighter blackouts. There’s the red-rage person, who jist gits so enraged he can’t think straight. Them folks don’t remember what they did, either, but they tend to fight stupid. Most of ’em, at least those I’ve run up against, are all fury and that’s about it.”
“Hm. It seems likely Bear Claw was one of those. Can’t really ask him about it now, though, seeing as how I killed him.”
Daniel chuckled, waving to Jeff fer one final cup of coffee–his eighth, I thought.
“Well, what I was trying to remember is, there’ve also always been warriors who had that blackout thing going, but it wasn’t the blind, stupid fury of the red-rage fighter. The ancient Vikings, for example. Some of their people, when they went into battle, they called ’em berserkers, ’cause they went berserk. Crazy.
“The thing is, them berserkers tended to be the last men standing on the field of battle at the end of the day. Historians aren’t generally wise to such things, but I’m guessing them Vikings were accessing something deeper, something that not only made ’em fiercer but also smarter in the way they fought, and maybe faster, too.”
Berserker? “You’re saying that when I black out, I…go berserk? That I’m crazy?”
He shrugged. “I can’t be sure of it, but yeah, sounds like it to me. In a good way. Could be you know it, too. Didn’t you name yourself Crazy Rifle?”
“Yeah, but…” The label I’d slapped on my own forehead had been describing the Hall carbine. It hadn’t really been about me…or had it?
“The other thing.” Daniel wasn’t done yet. “You don’t do it that way every time. Against the cougar and against the Odders gang, you did. But against Bear Claw and Lynx Killer–jist to name a couple–you did not.”
I thought about that. “You’re saying I’m only certifiably insane on a part time basis?”
That got a laugh out of him. “Your words, not mine. I guess what I’m really getting at is that it looks to me like there’s something in you, some deep part of you, that is able to click into different ways of doing things to fit the situation. It makes you plumb dangerous, Tam. Far more dangerous than a simple student of the military arts such as myself, fer example. Most men can’t do what you do; they’re jist not in your league.”
“In fact, I only ever heard of one other man I was certain sure fit that description. ”
Hm. That didn’t sound too bad. It did give me a bit of a yearning, though. “Is that man still alive? I’d like to meet him. Might learn something about myself.”
“Yep, he’s still alive and kicking. Last I heard, anyway. He’s the fellow I used to think was likely the most dangerous man on the planet, before I met you. And you don’t have to worry about meeting him.
“You’ve been living with him and his Cheyenne wife fer the whole durned winter.”