? curlyBill

Illustration by Clif Jackson

ister Earp told me and everyone else who asked that he killed Curly Bill, and that's the way I wrote it in the eastern magazine that paid me for that kind of story. After all, I reasoned, why should a man like Wyatt Earp make it up that he shot-gunned someone and risk having that someone show up to make him out a liar?

So there was my name, Marcus Stuart, big as life, as the author of an article making Earp out as the ultimate victor in the running battle with the followers of Curly Bill Brocius.

But others who had sided with Brocius against the Earps, the few still around, claimed either that Brocius wasn't even there, or that Earp simply fired a wild shot at their leader that afternoon last March at Iron Springs and then rode away as fast as he could. Earp, Doc Holliday and the rest of their crew responded that the cow-boys, as they were known (others called them rustlers), just didn't want Wyatt to get credit for downing their leader.         

    And now at least one of the cow-boy faction apparently had it in for me, for saying otherwise in print. Maybe the pen was mightier than the sword, as playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton had written more than forty years earlier, but right now I wished I knew more about the sword-or the gun.         

    The chase leading to that final confrontation had been crazy all around. Curly Bill and his cow-boys were being hunted by Earp and his crew. Wyatt had claimed that some of their number had ambushed and maimed his older brother, Virgil, and then later killed his younger one, Morgan. At the same time those two groups were running around, Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan was leading a third posse trying to run down and arrest Wyatt, since one of the men whom Wyatt's group had killed earlier as one of Morgan's ambushers had been a deputy of Behan's.    

         It had become pretty clear to most Tombstone residents that Sheriff Behan was an ally of the cow-boys. Brocius had even been one of Behan's tax collectors. Furthermore, Behan told Wyatt, Doc, Virgil and Morgan, just before their gunfight in Tombstone just outside Fly's photography studio with two of the Clanton brothers, two of the McLaurys and William 'Billy the Kid' Claiborne, on that cold October day last year, that he had already disarmed them-something hard to swallow given that everybody in the Earp party except Wyatt himself got wounded. Ike Clanton, who ran, and Claiborne, who drifted early despite nicknaming himself after the recently-deceased New Mexico gunslinger, were the only survivors from their side. Virgil and Morgan had pretty much recovered from their wounds by the time they fell victim to the later ambushes. Doc Holliday had only been nicked.            

Anyhow, none of the three groups of riders located any of the others until Earp's bunch rode up to a waterhole about nine miles north of Tombstone, blissfully unaware that the Brocius party was already there. The cow-boys opened fire and Wyatt's posse retreated, the only casualty being one of their horses.            

What Wyatt told me in our interview was that he dismounted when the gunfire started, and found himself looking right into Curly Bill's shotgun, close enough to identify it as a Wells Fargo weapon. Brocius' shot shredded Wyatt's duster but missed him. Wyatt triggered both barrels of his own shotgun, hitting Curly Bill squarely in the chest. Then he managed to get back on his panicked horse and ride off in a hail of gunfire, one bullet striking his saddle horn and another his boot heel. He said he accounted for at least one more of the cow-boys firing back at them.            

The Earps had shaken off the dust of Tombstone after being acquitted of murder charges over the business with the Clantons and McLaurys, the shootings of the two brothers and the hunting down of the ambushers, and headed for Colorado. I probably should have done the something like that myself. Frankly, it never occurred to me that anyone among the cow-boys would read anything I wrote. Most weren't particularly literary.            

If any of them did, it would have to be Johnny Ringo.            

Like Holliday, Ringo had the reputation of being a 'bad man' but a literate one. It was said that he shot a man in Arizona a couple years ago for ordering beer after Ringo demanded that he order whiskey. And I had done something more insulting than order the wrong drink, in Ringo's view.            

Yeah, Ringo was more of a reader than the others. He even quoted Shakespeare when he stepped in front of me on my way to the telegraph office, one hand holding the offending magazine and the other pushing his coat back off a pistol in his belt. "To be," he said to me, "or not to be, that is the question."            

Generally speaking, men didn't pack guns in Tombstone anymore. The Earps had rammed through an ordinance prohibiting the wearing of firearms in the city limits. Sometimes, though, someone like Ringo would have a pistol in his belt, pocket or boot. In fact, he and Doc Holliday came close to a shootout in Tombstone just a couple months ago, before bystanders broke them up. And obviously Ringo wanted me to see that he was armed on this day.            

Maybe he was just having fun with me-if he was sober. But Ringo was a mean drunk, and sometimes it was hard to tell which condition he was in. If he'd been with the Clantons and McLaurys during that gunfight with the Earps and Holliday, I wondered if it would have had a different outcome. But then I'd never witnessed Ringo's professed prowess with a gun, so I really couldn't say.            

I tried walking around him. He stepped to block me again. I started to mention that I wasn't armed, but remembered that the Arizona beer-drinker. "What can I do for you, Mister Ringo?" I asked, in a voice I hoped didn't quaver. The sweat trickling down my back was not from the July heat.            

He hefted the magazine in his left hand. "Well, for starters, you can eat your words in here."            

Ringo considered me a mere scribbler. But I might have surprise on my side. Before I came west in search of stories to sell to eastern publications, I had gotten more education back home than simply reading and writing. As a dock worker in New York harbor, I'd had my share of fistfights and learned a bit about rough and tumble. If Ringo drew his pistol, I was going to take him down.            

"You have a problem with the article, Mister Ringo?" I asked. This time I knew my voice was steady. I was actually beginning to get a little mad.            

Maybe it showed, because Ringo dropped the edge of his coat back over his pistol and gave a derisive chuckle. "Well. Perhaps the dude has a backbone, after all," he said. "But as a frontier reporter, you must know there are two versions of every story. Men who were there claim Curly Bill wasn't hurt at all."            

"Well, I'd be happy to do a report the other version," I said. "Were you there, Mister Ringo?"            

"I was riding in Behan's posse," he said. Then he smiled, or maybe it was a grimace. "Actually, I doubt that Curly Bill is still with us. More likely he's planted in an unmarked grave."            

Ringo's sudden reversal surprised me. "So what's all this about my eating my words?"            

"If you really wanted to back them up, you ought to locate Curly Bill's grave yourself. That'd be a good story. You could even get a hundred dollars from the Nugget."            

The argument over Curly Bill's supposed demise had been heated. The Daily Nugget, a Tombstone newspaper supportive of the cow-boys, had offered $100 for proof that he'd been killed. The Tombstone Epitaph, founded by the town's mayor, John Clum, famous for having captured Geronimo five years earlier, raised the ante to $2,000 if Curly Bill would put in an appearance alive. Neither had paid off.            

Ringo gave me another smile akin to a sneer, and handed me the magazine. Then he turned on his heel and stalked away. I watched as he crossed Allen Street, veering around some horse droppings, and went in the Occidental Saloon. I rolled up the magazine, stuck it in my coat pocket and resumed my trip to the telegraph office. The telegraph line had only reached Tombstone a couple years ago, but made it easier for me to keep in touch with eastern magazine editors who bought my work.            

"Anything for me?" I asked Orvon, the brown-haired boy behind the counter. Orvon was relatively new, but I'd never seen anyone click dots and dashes of Morse code faster than he did.            

"Yes sir, Mister Stuart," he said. Normally, he would shuffle among a small batch of telegrams to come up with mine but, this time, he produced it immediately. And he didn't meet my eyes when he handed it over.            

As I expected, it was from my editor in New York: ARTICLE ON EARP BROCIUS SHOOTOUT POPULAR STOP TRY TO CONFIRM BROCIUS DEATH STOP MAYBE FIND WHERE HE BURIED STOP. I blinked. That was what Ringo had suggested. But how was I supposed to know where he was buried?            

I started to leave, but something in Orvon's manner stopped me. "What?" I asked.            

He hung his head, hesitated, and finally spoke up. "Mister Ringo was in here just a little bit ago," he said. "He grabbed up that telegram of yours and read it."            

And you let him? I started to say, and then realized how silly that was. How would Orvon have stopped him? But I wondered at Ringo's interest in that telegram.            

"I appreciate your telling me, Orvon."            

"Mister Stuart..."            

I stopped and waited.            

"This isn't the first time. He's been making me show him your telegrams regularly, ever since that magazine article, the one about Mister Earp shooting Mister Brocius."            

Ringo's interest in me was not comforting. I'd never heard of him killing anybody around here, but he had the reputation. Only Brocius might have been more accurate. People spoke of him shooting out candle flames, and even shooting quarters from between the fingers of anyone he could make hold them. Brocius had also killed Tombstone's city marshal, Fred White, a few years ago when White was trying to disarm him, as the cow-boys were shooting up the streets. Brocius had claimed the fatal shooting was an accident, that his pistol went off when White pulled on it. He was later acquitted of the murder charge.            

After Old Man Clanton's death, Brocius had emerged as the cow-boys' leader, as much as they had one. The elder Clanton and some of his men had been ambushed by Mexicans whose cattle they were stealing, a couple months before the Earps and Clantons shot it out. The Tombstone cow-boys were pretty liberal about ownership of Mexican cattle.            

"Did he say anything about what he was looking for?" I asked Orvon.            

"No sir," said the boy, wide-eyed.            

"Well, thanks again for letting me know. I certainly won't tell Ringo that you did," I added, which elicited a sigh of relief from the youngster.            

So now I had to go looking for a grave. Well, I would go through the motions-anything to please an editor. I even bought a small shovel at a general store to pack along. But the incident had been four months ago. I didn't have much hope of success.            

The sooner I got the chore behind me, the better, I figured. So I went to the livery stable and rented my favorite horse, a feisty little bay gelding called Star after the white mark on his nose. He could be short-tempered, but he was the most agile horse I'd ever ridden.  And naturally I took my '73 Trapdoor Springfield along in the saddle scabbard. I might not be an expert in weapons, but it was foolish out here to travel both alone and unarmed.            

After a while, I realized I was not alone.            

I started the nine miles or so to Iron Wells, where Brocius supposedly died. It took most of the morning to get to the waterhole. Star drank while I looked around, seeking any patch of ground which looked like it might have been turned over in recent  months. I knew it was a fool's errand, but I was already concocting a story on the theme of the search for Curly Bill's grave. The editor who had sent me out here was darned well going to pay for something.            

And if that didn't work out, I'd write it up as a dime novel. Ned Buntline had nothing on me.            

I took time to look around at the rugged buttes and mesas, so different from the tree-covered mountains back east. And that was when I glimpsed the horseman. He was a good distance off, standing at the base of one of the buttes. If his horse hadn't chosen that moment to throw up his head, I wouldn't have spotted him at all.            

If the horseman had been moving, I wouldn't have given him another thought. But he'd stopped when I did. Now that I knew he was there, I could tell he also started again when I did.            

Normally I'd have been starting back to Tombstone after prowling around the waterhole, having absorbed enough local color for whatever yarn I'd end up writing. But that would take me toward the horseman. I chose a roundabout route instead. I didn't like being followed, not at all.            

The follower kept his distance all day and, as darkness fell, Star and I made our way into some boulders where I didn't think we could be seen by anyone coming along behind us. I resigned myself to a cold camp, and was glad I'd brought along some oats for the horse and a canteen for us both, although I wished I'd packed some food. I hadn't planned to be out here overnight. But I hadn't planned on being stalked by a mysterious horseman, either.            

I picketed Star and settled down, wrapped in my coat and with my Springfield for a bedtime companion. The '73 model was the army's first standard-issue breech loader, which opened like a trapdoor-thus its nickname. The weapon had first been used with copper cartridges, later found to expand under heat and sometimes jam the rifle. Custer's soldiers had been armed with those cartridges at the Little Big Horn, and that jamming was speculated to have contributed to their being wiped out by the Sioux. I carried brass-cased cartridges instead, to avoid Custer's fate.            

My hope was that my follower would have passed me by in the night. There was no way to tell; the rock-hard surface around me would show no footprints, and I had heard nothing.            

I still felt uneasy about retracing my path back to Tombstone. So I simply widened my field of exploration. If Curly Bill's friends wanted to keep his death a secret, they would hardly have put up a marker. But where would they have buried him, if indeed he was dead"            

I won't bore you with the time I spent in the saddle, living on occasional coffee and meals when I'd run into groups of cowhands. I ended up at the edge of the sprawling Sierra Bonita Ranch, the biggest in Arizona, owned by 'Colonel' Henry Hooker-the same place where Wyatt and his party had taken refuge for a time, after their encounter with the cow-boys and while Sheriff Behan's posse was still hunting them.            

"Lookin' for something?" came a voice from behind me.            

I turned Star around, and found myself facing a pair of horsemen, ranch hands by their look and range clothes. And they wore their pistols right out in the open. But their suspicions evaporated once I introduced myself, and showed them that magazine Ringo had so kindly provided me. It's astonishing how people will confide in you once they hear you're a writer.            

Ned Salt was a lanky black man with long arms, while Cal Pepper had the grizzled look of one who'd spent time in the sun. It was tempting to chide them by asking if they didn't have their names backward, but I was sure they'd heard that particular joke enough.            

"Yeah, I was here when Behan's posse rode in," Pepper recalled. "Thought for a while I was going to have to prove myself a man. The colonel told Behan flat out that his posse was a bunch of  rustlers and outlaws. One of them took offense and said they'd make the boss tell where Earp and his boys were, so some of us hefted our guns. They backed down real fast."            

"Shoot, everybody knew where they were," added Ned Salt. "They'd moved to the top of a hill 'bout two miles off. That sheriff just didn't want to find them."            

"Behan's a prudent man," agreed Pepper.            

"Did they say anything about Curly Bill?" I asked.            

Pepper chuckled. "They didn't. But Earp told the boss he'd killed Brocius. The colonel had a thousand dollar reward on Brocius' head, after all the rustling he's had."            

"Did Earp collect?" I asked.            

"Earp said he'd gone after Brocius for personal reasons," Pepper said. "Wasn't interested in no reward. Shoot, I reckon the reward's still good if someone brought in Brocius, or his corpse. Or, shoot, just his head would be enough, I reckon."            

I thought about that as I retraced other parts of where the various posses had ridden, mapping out in my head a fanciful story of fictional characters seeking Curly Bill's head for the reward. I might want to use a nom de plume for that kind of dime novel, I reflected, if I didn't want six-gun criticism from the likes of Ringo or Ike Clanton or other cow-boy survivors.            

I really needed to produce some kind of story from these several days of roaming and sharing occasional meals at cattle camps. I was actually starting back to Tombstone when I rounded a mesa and came face to face with another rider.            

"Well, if it ain't the writer. Hey, hold on..."            

My nerves were so on edge that I had the rifle out of its scabbard before I even recognized the other man: Pony Deal, one of those who'd ridden with Brocius. I didn't point it at him, just held it across Star's neck in his general direction.

"Howdy, Mister Deal. Are you the rider who's been on my trail?"

"I don't know what you're talkin' about," the man blustered, but he made sure his hand was well away from his holstered pistol.

'It just seems quite the coincidence, us running into each other out here..."

"Ringo told me what you were doin' out here," Deal cut in. "Lookin' for Curly Bill's grave!"

"You can relax, Mister Deal. I'm not looking for it anymore," I assured him. I touched Star's sides with my heels, and we moved past him. But I kept my rifle handy until I'd ridden out of his sight.

Even so, I could hear the oath he uttered and the sudden galloping of his horse. I raised the rifle, but realized the hoof beats were going away, not toward me. I wondered what had gotten into him. After all, I'd reassured him about Curly Bill...

And then I realized that he might have taken my statement in a totally different way. Maybe he thought I wasn't looking for the grave because I'd already found it. Deal could easily have been with Brocius at Iron Springs, and so would know where the grave was-and he could be riding to see if it was intact.

Well, if he could follow me, I could do the same to him.

And that's just what I did. He was in such a hurry that I guess it never occurred to check his back trail.

I won't bore you with the details. Again, it was a long and tedious trek. But, when Deal dismounted and knelt down to examine a particular piece of ground, I was watching from a distance. I almost imagined that I could see the smile of relief on his face, but it was probably his whole stance which reflected that attitude. Anyway, he climbed on his horse and rode away at a much slower pace, now apparently without a care in the world.

When I was sure he was long gone, I rode down to the spot he'd examined. Sure enough, I could see where the ground had been disturbed. I would later learn that the property was part of a ranch owned by a Frank Patterson.

I picketed Star, got my shovel and began to dig.

It was slow work. The brown soil was hard, and I was concentrating on being careful with my excavation. I lost track of the time, but it had to be an hour or more before I uncovered the figure wrapped in a blanket.

It had to be Curly Bill Brocius.

Cautiously, trying to disturb the corpse as little as possible, I began to uncover it. I had seen Brocius occasionally in Tombstone: a big man, freckled, with curly black hair. I lifted the wrap which had been over the face. Then I dropped it and stumbled back from what I saw.

"Congratulations," came a voice from behind me. "I had faith that you could do it."

I spun and found myself facing Ringo. He wore different clothes now, a light hat, blue shirt and vest, and a couple cartridge belts. He must have left his horse somewhere and crept over here while I was occupied. My rifle was in the saddle scabbard on Star, maybe four yards away. His hand was again on his gun.

"So it wasn't Pony Deal who was following me." It was all I could think of to say.

"Oh, no. It's been me, all along. None of the boys who'd been with Curly Bill would tell me where they'd buried him. Maybe they figured out why I wanted to know."

Curiosity got the best of me. "Why did you?"

"A thousand dollars, that's why. After the Earps, there's not much of a living for someone like me to be made around here. I'm not even a profitable gambler, like Holliday and Earp. I want the money. And Bill's head will get it for me."            

As simple as that, I thought. I almost laughed, but stopped myself. "Well, there it is. Take it."

"Not me. You're taking it to Hooker. Afterward, we can divide his reward. I don't care to have the other boys know how I 'm profiting from this little venture. They wouldn't understand."

I had no illusions about sharing the reward. Once I collected, I would be history. Ringo couldn't afford to leave me alive, if he really wanted to keep this secret from his pals. I'd be blamed for desecrating the grave, Ringo would quietly pocket the money, and I'd never be heard from again. Maybe I'd wind up in an unmarked grave like Brocius.

"How do you know your friends won't figure out your part in this?"

"I've just spent two weeks carousing with Frank Leslie and Billy Claibourne. I told them I was heading for Galeyville for some more drinking-just before I sent that telegram to you at Tombstone," he said, grinning.

"You sent it?"

"Like I said, I had faith that you'd fulfill an editor's assignment. Use the edge of that shovel to knock the head free. That's all you'll need."      

"Maybe you'd better take a look at the body first, Ringo," I said.

He frowned but, casually drawing his pistol to keep me in line, he stepped forward and looked. His reaction was the same as mine had been. When he recoiled, I swung the shovel at his hand and knocked the pistol out of it. Then I hit him on the side of the head with the shovel, leaving a cut on his scalp.

I picked up his pistol as he staggered back a step, still staring down at the body.

It didn't seem to sink in that our positions were now reversed. He just stared with wide eyes at the face I'd uncovered-totally unrecognizable, bones showing through the blackened skin, teeth bared in a ghastly grin. It was obvious that nobody was ever going to be able to identify these remains as belonging to Curly Bill.

"All for nothing," Ringo said, as though to himself. "All that planning, my figuring on you..." He stopped and glared at me. "You hit me," he said, and started toward me. I cocked his pistol, and he stopped.

I should have shot him right there. But it wasn't in me to gun down an unarmed man, even one whom I knew would be coming after me sooner or later.

I made him sit down on the ground several yards away, close enough that I could watch him and far enough away so he couldn't rush me when I stuck his pistol in my belt. I shoveled dirt back onto what vestiges of humanity were left in that grave, then stowed the shovel on my saddle and took out the pistol again.

"Let's go get your horse," I said.

He got up. "You're not riding me into Tombstone at gunpoint," he warned.

"I'm not sure what I'm going to do with you. Let's go."

Once we reached his horse, I had him to unbuckle his cartridge belts and mount up. He had a rifle on his saddle, too, but he was a pistol man and I couldn't hold my reins, his pistol and a rifle at the same time. Besides, if he went for the rifle, I'd have an excuse to shoot him. I draped the belts across my saddle, and we rode out.

I had no doubt that Ringo would try to kill me at some point-especially if he was seen in Tombstone with an easterner like me holding his own gun on him. I'd caught a tiger by the tail, and didn't know how to let go.

By the time we came to West Turkey Creek Canyon, I'd decided.

"Hold it. Get down," I said. Ringo hesitated, but complied. He hadn't tried for the rifle. I got down, tied Star and removed it myself. "Take off your boots," I said.

Another hesitation, but, when I cocked the gun, he sat down and pulled them off. I took them, dug some twine out of his saddlebags and tied them across his saddle. Then I yelled and gave his horse a smack on the rump, sending it trotting away.

"What's the idea?" Ringo snarled.

"I figure it'll take you a while to catch that horse, barefoot," I said. "By then, I hope to be back to Tombstone and on my way somewhere else." I climbed on Star and rode off, looking back to see Ringo's glare of hatred burning after me.

I felt pleased with myself. There was no doubt that I'd been facing death, and I'd overcome it, I thought. But I knew this part of the country was finished for me. Ringo wouldn't forget. The only safe place for me now was back east. I was figuring out the quickest way to get there when Star took a stumble. The horse went to his knees, and I went over his head.

I don't know how long I was unconscious. When I came around, Star was standing there nuzzling me. I got up, and saw the gopher hole he'd stepped in. I checked his leg-not broken, but he was limping.

"You'll be all right, boy," I said, rubbing his nose. "But I sure can't ride you the rest of the way. We'll both have to walk."

And we did, for some time. It was when we came to a place where several trees had grown up into each other that something came at me from the brush and knocked me to the ground. Ringo stood over me, a wolfish grin on his face, and strips that looked like they came from an undershirt around his feet. He held his forty-five, recovered from where it had been stuck in my belt.

"Didn't work, did it?" he said, thumbing back the hammer. "Now, mister reporter, you can say your prayers...

I surged to my feet in desperation, grabbing his arm and pushing it up. The surprise on his face turned to the more-familiar rage. We struggled wordlessly, our breath coming in gasps, until the gun went off.

Ringo staggered back. He flopped down as though sitting, where the trees formed a sort of support which kept his upper body upright. The pistol in his hand dropped almost to his lap. Its sight caught on a watch chain he wore.

He didn't move again. The wound in his right temple showed why.

When I caught my breath, I buckled his cartridge belts back around him where he lay. I learned later I got one of them on upside down. Star and I limped into Tombstone, and I went back east as I planned.

You know the rest. As Bat Masterson would do, I became a newspaper writer until I retired. I never mentioned Ringo's name to anyone again. But the name, unlike the man, just won't die. It's even been adopted for leading men in western movies-William Elliott in "The Savage Horde," Gregory Peck in "The Gunfighter," George Montgomery in "Gun Belt," and on and on.

And if you're reading this manuscript stored with my will, it means I've finally passed on, too. But Johnny Ringo and Curly Bill live on, as legends from a time that's long gone.


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