By Don Webb
The dusty streets of Amarillo lay still. Tired cowboys drank warm bourbon on the wide steps of the Amarillo Hotel. Vultures circled the city, their forms wavering in the thermals.
Rosa told fortunes.
A young man limped his way toward town walking on the railroad. He wore a costume new to the 1890′s: white Stetson, blue satin shirt, black pants, white leather chaps, ivory-handled six-shooters. First Midnight Cowboy here on a September noon. Somewhere a harmonica played.
When he got a hundred yards from the station Rosa spotted him through her tent-flap. She flipped over the 13th Trump, Death. The harmonica stopped. The Sheriff looked up from his fortune at the young man. The young man tripped on a tie and fell in the boneless manner of infants. The Sheriff rushed to the fallen. Rosa gathered her cards. She already had the dime.
The Sheriff yelled and the bored cowpokes gathered round.
“Get the Doc.” and somebody got the Doc, well into his mid afternoon stupor.
The Doc had them carry the fancy pants to the lobby of the Amarillo Hotel.
The Doc splashed some whiskey on the innocent face and the young man rose.
He said, “iwanttobeagunslingerlikemyfatherwas”
“Whoa, hold up there son.”
“Iwanttobe agunslingerlike myfatherwas”
“Slower, boy, easy now. Have a whiskey.”
And the kid looked at the whiskey as though it was something new, something unknown, and marvellous. He took the shot glass and swallowed it all at a gulp. Then he coughed, spat, and danced ’til he’d brought the whiskey up in fine spray over the bystanders.
“He must be a Yankee.”
“Must be a foreigner. Look at how he’s dressed.”
“He’s from one of them airships like crashed at Aurora.”
“Who are you son?!”
“I want to be a gunslinger just like my father was.” The kid smiled.
He’d got it right.
“Gunslingin’s no life for a boy,” said the Sheriff. “Where you from?”
“I want to be a gunslinger just like my father was I want.”
“He’s crazy from the heat.”
The kid handed his shot glass to the bartender. He started to speak again — thought better of it and pulled out two letters. The Sheriff pocketed them quick like.
The Sheriff said, “Doc why don’t you and me and the kid here mosey over to the jail and have a little talk.”
The cowpokes hated the Sheriff for hogging the mystery, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. The harmonica started again.
The first letter was addressed to John Wesley Hardin. The Sheriff hadn’t worn that name in sixteen years. How had they found him? He felt like a stagehand suddenly illuminated in the spotlight. The faded, creased letter read:
This here is my son. His father rode
with you. I don’t know his father’s name,
but I remember when you rode into town.
You’s the famous one. You’s the one to train
him for the life he’s gonna lead. I’m
returning to my family back East. Please
take care of him. Raise him like his blood
The second letter was newer — written in an angled hand influenced by book letters. It was addressed to “Whom It May Concern”:
Dear to whom,
I’ve brought up little Billy here as my
own child, but the needs of my ten other
children are so pressing that I must abandon
the little tyke and hope he finds happiness
in an honest and honourable profession.
The Sheriff sat on one side of Billy, the Doc on the other. They tried rotation, they tried shouting, they tried tough cop and soft cop. All they ever got was “I want to be a gunslinger just like my father was.”
They handed him pen and paper and he wrote:
and they took the paper away.
When night came, the Sheriff lit a candle. Billy tried to pick the flame up. As Billy sucked his fingers, the Sheriff reached a decision.
“Well, I guess we’ll have to send him to the schoolmarm. The school year’s starting and this boy needs learning.” The Sheriff wanted to show Miss Wyatt how well he handled anomalies.
It was 1897 and Greece and Turkey were at war over Crete, German troops occupied Kiaochow and Americans had been seeing mysterious airships for months. One had crashed in the city of Aurora, in Hidalgo County, Texas on April 17. A small non-human body and maps in “an unknown language” were found. An U. S. Signal Corps officer pronounced the pilot “from Mars.” For details, see the Dallas Morning News for April 19, 1897. Watch the skies and hear the wind blow.
Billy Hauser proved a super pupil. He stood taller than the other kids and handsomer too. Miss Wyatt found herself thinking thoughts unbecoming for a schoolmarm. He’s only a child, she’d tell herself as she watched him knock the dust from the erasers.
Billy seemed torn between Miss Wyatt and ten-year-old Katherine McCleod. He’d sit at his tiny desk with his knees bent up to his chest and throw pieces of chalk at Kathy, a true sign of love if ever there was one.
One night Miss Wyatt crept into Rosa’s tent.
“Miss Rosa, I need a love potion to bind my lover to me and shut out my rival.”
Rosa handed her a vial filled with an oily green liquid.
“Pour some of this in his inkwell. He’ll forget about Katherine McCleod. Thirty-five cents, please.”
“How did you know Kathy was my rival?”
“Her red pigtails. Men see them and want to dip them into inkwells. In a few years a Viennese physician will explain these things.”
The Sheriff moseyed by the schoolhouse just as the moon was rising. Miss Wyatt marked papers by lantern light. He tapped on the window. She looked up with a start which melted to disappointment.
“Say Miss Wyatt what if you and me went to the Founder’s Day Dance?”
“No thank you, Sheriff. I just might have another gentleman calling.”
She turned and a cloud passed over the moon.
Billy’s story came out in dribs and drabs as he gained a vocabulary. He’d been kept in a dark room which was neither hot nor cold. He was fed by “The Man”, a thin figure with a domino. The man beat him only once, for being too noisy. His only companions were two mops. When it came time to leave the man took off Billy’s one-piece white garment and dressed him in the fancy duds. The man blindfolded Billy and led him up long, long flights of stairs. Billy tripped, fell and developed his limp.
On the way up the man taught him the I-want-to-be sentence. The man put Billy on the tracks and gave him a shove. When Billy looked around the man was gone.
“I still say he came in one of those airships like crashed in Aurora.”
The Methodist Women’s Circle made him some proper clothes months later when his shiny suit fell into disrepair. The Sheriff confiscated the firearms. Nothing was said of gunslinging.
One Saturday Billy and the other kids went to watch the buffalo hunters sell skins to the buyer from Chicago. Billy led the pack with his adult stride. He was several feet ahead when he turned down an alley. When the kids caught up they found Billy lying in the dirt bleeding profusely from the forehead. The Doc came. Billy regained consciousness. “The Man” had done it. Billy’d turned into the alley and there was the domino and the glinting dagger.
The Doc bandaged Billy’s head. He told the Sheriff that maybe Billy should learn to shoot.
Miss Wyatt had Billy stay after school almost every day. One day Kathy said, “You stole my man. You and that witch.”
“I don’t know what you mean, child.”
“Well you watch out. I’m going to get thirty-five cents in my sock for Christmas and then we’ll see.”
Miss Wyatt went on with the lesson. Four times four is sixteen, but later in the week she sent a note home to all the parents urging them not to spoil their children during the Christmas holidays. Stocking gifts should be limited to, perhaps, an orange.
Because of his size Billy was chosen to cut down the school’s Christmas tree. He rode out to Palo Duro Canyon with Mr. Lawton the head of the school board to select a not-too-twisted cedar. They were busily sawing the tree when Billy said he’d have to go to the bushes. He scrambled down the tallis slope and Mr. Lawton heard a shot. Mr. Lawton ran to the prone Billy. Nothing moved but the vultures. The vultures always followed Billy.
“The Man” had struck again.
Miss Wyatt had to miss the Christmas dance. She stayed in the loft over the livery stable nursing Billy.
“The woman’s a saint and a true Christian martyr.”
“Don’t the Sheriff look sad without her.”
In the early spring the Sheriff began to teach Billy to shoot. They’d ride out of town find a flat rock to set up bottles and cans. Billy began as blind as a bat and a shaky shooter as well.
“You’ve got to be more calm. Be at one with your target. Take your time.”
“No, point the gun at the bottle. Just like pointing your finger at it. There’s no need to hurry. Only the shots that connect count. Fire in your own time.”
He must really be Eric’s boy.
A huge wall of grey black dust rose west of town. It poured toward the city. It stung and burned. Everyone took shelter. Except for Billy. Like the candle flame this was totally new. He watched the sun become a tarnished dime. He felt the dirt in his nostrils, between his teeth, pouring into his pants. He saw it flow and splash along burying his shiny boots. The buildings vanished. The sun vanished. It was almost night: a superimposition of many tiny dust mote eclipses.
“The Man” stood before him.
Billy hadn’t heard him and he couldn’t see him too well, but he knew the smell. If he’d lived a few years later he might’ve identified ether. The ether and dust made his head swim. The Man came at him holding a large needle in his outstretched left hand. But Billy found his time. Just as the needle touched his left forearm, Billy fired.
They dug Billy out of the dust and listened to his story. “The Man” had vanished with the storm, but lots of blood marked his passing.
Billy ran a high fever for weeks. The Sheriff came to see him every day. At first the Sheriff was really interested in seeing Miss Wyatt, but the kid looked so — old. The sand had cut tiny age wrinkles in his face and the fever dimmed his eyes. The kid reminded the Sheriff of the Sheriff’s father, who’d died of pneumonia. The Sheriff remembered his father’s last words, “Son, swear to me you’ll never wear a lawman’s badge.”
If Billy Hauser lived, the Sheriff would make him into the most notorious gunslinger the West had ever known. The two of them would ride out together. No one would be safe. And Miss Wyatt could live at the hideout. He’d even picked the cave on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon.
Kathy brought wildflowers everyday.
Billy got better. It was time to begin his training in earnest. The Sheriff walked to the livery stable. Moaning and thrashing echoed from the loft. Had “The Man” attacked again? The Sheriff shinnied up the ladder only to see Billy and Miss Wyatt.
“Why you son of a bitch.”
Billy didn’t understand how anything that felt so good could be bad.
The Sheriff filled his hand with the notched six-shooter of his gunfighter days. He stood in the corral facing the door of the livery. He would shoot Billy the second Billy stepped into the light. The Sheriff’s heart pounded. Rosa heard it and went out to watch.
Miss Wyatt climbed down the ladder. Stop this thing. She watched Billy approach the sunlit doorway.
Billy stepped into the light.
The Sheriff fired.
The bullet sliced off a piece of the lintel. Billy drew up his gun slow like. He found his time. He fired.
Miss Wyatt learned a lesson in emotional physics. Friendship (like gravity) may be a weak force, but it is ultimately binding. She rushed past Billy to kneel by the Sheriff as his red life poured into the shit-strewn earth. Behind Billy in the darkness of the livery, somebody applauded. Who could applaud such a terrible act? Billy wheeled. The Man thrust an ether-soaked rag into Billy’s face.
A month later: a young man in a silk-shiny sailor suit walks unsteadily along the Galveston Dock. He barely makes it up the gangplank of a cotton boat. With unfocussed eyes he turns to the quartermaster and says, “I want to be a sailor like my father was.”
And in a few days, The Man would once again diamond-etch another notch on his ether bottle.
© 2002 Don Webb.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.