When they were putting the town of Jimson Weed together, there were two main topics of discussion. The first one was whether or not the Jimson Weed Mine would peter out before the town was even finished, and the second one concerned speculation as to who of its citizens would enjoy the honor of being the first man shot down in the streets there. Both topics received much discussion over sociable drinks in the evening for a while. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the Jimson Weed struck a new vein just as the old one was playing out, and a rich one it was. It was six years before the community named for the mine became a ghost town.
As for who had the honor of dying first on Main Street (there was no other street there for a good six months), while discussion continued a while longer, the actual answer when it came, was bogged down in some confusion.
Jimson Weed’s first town marshal was a man named Fred Henshaw, a big man, thick through the body, with small dark, eyes set deep in heavy sockets. The city fathers, such as they were, had decided the office of marshal would be filled by the good old American custom of a fair election. The candidates were Erskine Smith, a man who had the distinction of having been at one time a tax collector back in Wisconsin, and Charlie Moore, who had held a deputy’s position in Las Vegas, New Mexico and who had been a town constable in Dodge City when the late Ed Masterson was marshal there, and who had worked alongside such other town constables as Wyatt Earp, who was now a wanted man down in Arizona, and Jim Masterson, younger brother of Ed and Bat.
Henshaw was the third candidate and most of us didn’t give him much of a chance against two such experienced gentlemen.
About two days before the election, the peace and quiet of our fair city was disrupted by the explosion of gunfire. It was about six o’clock when it happened and most people were sleeping, some of them having gotten into bed as much as an hour and a quarter ago, so that even our four saloons were quiet. Naturally, we all ran out to see what the commotion was, most of us cautiously armed, and myself grabbing up my doctoring bag in the optimistic hope that I might be called on to give aid to a paying customer.
I was to be disappointed. There, lying in the street were Erskine Smith and Charlie Moore, their political careers having ended. Fred Henshaw stood over them, holding his smoking pistols, and glaring around at the populace with those beady eyes of his. “They drew first,” he said. “I guess that means I win the election.”
Both men were drilled neatly in the chest. I don’t suppose anyone in that crowd was naïve enough to think Erskine Smith was much with a revolver, but Charlie Moore had a past and it had bought him a reputation as a pretty good man in a fight, especially if he was facing his opponent, and both men were shot in the chest. So, inasmuch as there were no other witnesses and Henshaw’s was the only testimony to what happened, there was general and discreet agreement that Henshaw was the town lawman.
But the question of which one of them died first was never really cleared up and the bets had to be called off. By then we had other things to talk about.
The boom towns that sprang up around the mines – the cattle trail towns like Dodge and Abilene, too, for that matter – were all about economics, and the town marshal had to take that into consideration when doing his job. Towns were where businesses were, and businesses had to make money. That meant they were dependent on being visited by people with full pockets and unsatisfied appetites.
These people – cowboys working trail herds back when Dodge was going strong, miners in from the camps on payday in the case of Jimson Weed – played their important role in things economic by spending their money on strong drink at the bar of the saloons, and on the women in the parlors up over the bar. They visited the various mercantile establishments and the restaurants.
Jimson Reed might be relatively remote from more important towns, but thanks to the modern miracle of the freight wagon, we could offer plenty to the workingman tired from his hours of toil and weighted down in the pockets. There were cattle ranches nearby and they provided our restaurants with beef. Our part of the country was not exactly good farming country, so vegetables were a problem, but that didn’t much worry most of the customers, and we usually had potatoes, tomatoes and various other things in season. Tony Plimpton’s, next door to the Oasis Saloon, boasted a chef trained in Italy, so if you actually cared about good cooking, you could find it.
At the Oasis and our other saloons the bars were as well-stocked as any in New York, Chicago or New Orleans, and you would have no trouble finding any sort of mixed drink you cared for. As for the ladies upstairs, in Plimpton’s it was advertised that they were clean enough to eat off of, though you couldn’t always know who’d dined there before you, or how recently.
With so much of the material benefit of the community coming in through the auspices of drunken miners, it was necessary that the town peace officer concentrate on certain principals. He was, if he could avoid it, never to kill a man who had a reasonable percentage of his wages left to spend. But he was supposed to take care of troublemakers, dragging them off to jail before they had caused too much damage.
I don’t know why we were surprised at the fact, but it turned out Henshaw was pretty good at that.
I suppose it was unchristian of me, but I remember upon realizing that Henshaw would be our new marshal, that I thought this would probably mean good business for me, or if not me, at least the undertaker. But once he had a badge, Henshaw seemed to give up the revolver as a shooting weapon. He would prowl the town by night, paying special attention to the saloons and their problems, a man generally being more content after a good meal that a good bottle. It was usually easy business, since a drunk can’t rely on himself in a fight. Henshaw wasn’t one for picking a fight, either, though he picked his opportunities. And when he saw it he would come up behind a man and hit him hard over the head with his gun.
The trouble maker would wake up in jail and when he was able to stand more or less, he’d be fined and set free. The city fathers were still at this time squabbling among themselves about which of them should fill the office of judge, so most of the fines were set by the marshal. Oddly enough, most of those fines – in fact, I’m willing to say all of those fines – came to the very same amount of money the poor soul had left in his pocket.
I certainly didn’t do a landslide business in gunshot wounds while he was in office, but I became quite handy at treating scalp lacerations and headaches.
So Henshaw was doing well and wasn’t killing anyone. The undertaker hated him, having to content himself with natural death and the occasional hanging, of which we had only three in the six months Henshaw held sway. But I can’t say anyone had much respect for Henshaw. He was an obvious bully and quite mean spirited.
Then Billy Coates came to town.
Billy Coates was a lean fellow, deeply suntanned from a life spent mostly out of doors. He had dark, unruly hair and high cheekbones, rather like an Indian, and a sort of wiry muscularity. His hands were calloused, scarred and rope burned, suggesting he worked with them. They were certainly not the hands of a gunslinger. When he rode into town I saw a buffalo rifle slung across his saddle, and he wore an old Army revolver. It looked worn but well cared for and there was nothing about it or him to suggest he’d ever had to
use it on anything but the occasional rattlesnake or jack rabbit.
Lou Boston hadn’t actually opened up his hotel at that time, but he was thinking about it because on his first floor, in back, he had several rooms he rented out to those who weren’t willing to do their sleeping out on the prairie or on the floor of his back room with the other drunks. Coates took a room with him and when I saw him the second time, in what Lou called his drinking parlor, he’d actually washed most of the dust off and changed into a clean shirt and jacket. He was sitting at a table, eating a bowl of hash and some biscuits and washing it all down with beer.
As a matter of fact, Lou Boston’s was where I usually ate because I found his facilities usually cleaner than the other eating and drinking establishments in that period. I knew for a fact that most nights the plates were washed with soap, not just scraped and dipped in water. He also employed an old man to sweep out the place, a slow minded old-timer named Rack. Rack was a great favorite with most people in town, friendly and not so slow he couldn’t tell when you were joking most times, and joking back at you. For some reason, though, Henshaw didn’t like him. Maybe that wasn’t a big thing. I never got the impression Henshaw liked anybody. But it was his dislike of Rack that opened the dance.
I’d ordered a steak. Lou had a Mexican lady who did his cooking, but she was a wonder at cooking a good steak. Somehow Lou managed to keep onions most of the time. He must have had them freighted in but I never heard from where. But his cook would
brown some onions and then put them on the steak while it was just cooking and the result, with her doing the honors, was the finest steak in town. A potato and a cup of coffee came with it.
My meal had just come, I’d put away a day old newspaper from Sacramento, California, and was digging in. I could see Coates sitting at his table, just about finished with eating. We were toward the back of the room. Rack was in front, sweeping near the door, careful not to stir up dust where the customers were, getting things ready for the night.
He was whistling, and I’d be glad to tell you the name of the tune but Rack couldn’t whistle for a dog so you – or the dog – could recognize it.
The door was open and in comes Henshaw, not paying any attention where he’s going and he just stops in time to keep from running into Rack. He glares at him a moment and then says, “Shut the hell up, old man. I don’t need to hear that racket,” and pushes him out of his way.
Rack falls down and bangs his head against the bar. Lou, who’s tending bar as usual, turns around in time to see what happened and says, “What the hell are you doing, Henshaw?” Henshaw pays no attention to Rack and walks straight to the bar and sits down. “Shut up, Boston, and get me my dinner,” he says.
I’m up on my hind feet and rushing to see to Rack, but Billy Coates
is closer and by the time I get there, he has the old man on his feet. Rack’s rubbing the back of his head and I when I take a look at it I can see a bump swelling all ready. But he hadn’t hit a corner or anything, and I just tell Lou to spare some ice to put on it.
Coates, however, turns to our town marshal and says, “Are you always this way?”
It seems to take Henshaw a moment to figure out he’s talking to him. He looks at him out of the corner of his eye and says, “What way is that?”
“You knocked a helpless old man down.”
Hunch shrugged. “So, what’s it to you?”
“I don’t like a bully, that’s all.”
Henshaw turned to face him. “I think you better get back to your food and finish up and get out of here before you get hauled off to jail.”
“Oh?” said Coates. “And how many deputies will it take to help a yellow coward like you do that?”
It suddenly got very quiet in that saloon and while I don’t think it could have been as long as it seemed, for a moment Henshaw just sat there, and Coates, his hands on his belt, watched him.
Then Henshaw leaped off the stool and swung at Coates with such force I’m still pretty sure it could have taken his head off.
But it didn’t because Coates stepped aside and avoided the blow. Henshaw went past him, a look of total disbelief on his face and toppled forward onto the floor.
Henshaw cursed and scrambled to his feet, grabbing for his gun. But Coates was standing there, his pistol already pointed. He was calm as could be, too.
Henshaw was anything but calm but he knew enough to realize he needed to be. He carefully moved his hands away from his gun butts. Lou yelled, “Hey, hey, hey!” and was reaching under the bar for a bat, though Coates was too far away for him to use it. Lou added, a bit feebly, “We can’t have any gunplay in here. In fact, I don’t allow any fighting of any kind.”
“My apologies, then,” said Coates. Henshaw just stood there shaking with fury, and maybe something more. Coates smiled.
Honshu said, “You got the drop on me because I was knocked down. I saw you draw. You’re too slow to take me in a fair game.”
I’d seen it too, and I was pretty sure Henshaw was right. Coates said, “Then why don’t we do this. Why don’t you take off your guns and lay them on the counter. Then you go outside and wait on me. I’ll take mine off and be out to accommodate you with my fists.”
“You?” said Henshaw. “You against me, with nothing but your fists?” He laughed and started unbuckling his belt. “That sounds like a deal to me.”
“Slowly, now,” said Coates.
He didn’t have to worry about that. The arrangement he’d proposed was just up Henshaw’s alley and he was eager to oblige. Henshaw undid his buckle and removed the belt from his waist, careful to keep his hands away from the guns. There was a big smile on Henshaw’s face as he lifted the guns to the counter and deposited them in front of Lou Boston.
“Now go outside, I’ll be right along,” said Coates. Henshaw went to the door and stood there watching while Coates holstered his gun and removed his gun belt. He put it on the counter next to Henshaw’s and Henshaw laughed and went outside. Coates trailed after him.
Henshaw went into the middle of the street and turned to wait. Coates just walked up to him, lifting his fists like a boxer. Henshaw laughed again and swung a haymaker at his head. I said that Coates lifted his fists like a boxer. It was obvious the way he ducked the haymaker that he’d done some boxing, but when he started pounding on Henshaw, it was plain he’d done some street fighting, too. He started in working the body like a prize fighter, but at the first opportunity, he sent a haymaker to Henshaw that matched the one he’d fired off – except Coates’ landed. It rocked Henshaw back and Coates moved in on him, pounding
away at him with considerable gusto. His blows were having effect and for a moment I thought Henshaw was going down.
I was wrong. There was a look of surprise on Henshaw’s face, but he absorbed what Coates threw at him and the surprise faded from his face to be replaced with determination. He weaved and ducked and sidestepped a couple of blows from Coates and then landed one hard, against Coates’ head.
Coates reeled back, fell to one knee. Henshaw drove in, hunting for the advantage, but Coates dropped to the ground and slid away, knocking Henshaw’s feet out from under him at the same time. They scrambled up and faced off again, and the fight was on in earnest.
Of course we’d all come out of Boston’s place to watch the fight and people started spilling out of the other saloons as well. Half the town must have been there. The two of them were toe to toe, swinging and butting and fighting like two bulls now. They’d get knocked down and get back up and get knocked down again, and it must have gone on for better than fifteen minutes with no real stop.
Fifteen minutes is an eternity to be swinging something as heavy as your own arms, especially when somebody’s swinging back, and you’re taking most of the blows sent against you. Henshaw was the heavier man, and his fists had a lot of beef and bone and muscle behind them. I would never have thought a man of Coates’ build could stand up to him, much less come as close as he did to winning that fight.
But close as he came, he couldn’t win it and finally Henshaw managed to find some well of strength he hadn’t tapped yet and he put all of it into one last powerhouse right that almost took Coates’ head off. Coates dropped to the ground and lay there like a rock.
Henshaw stood over him, his sides heaving with the effort to breathe, and his body swaying like a tree in a cyclone. He tried to say something but couldn’t. He fell to his knees then and hunkered there a minute or so getting his breath back, then scrambled to his feet. His breathing was more normal now.
No one had made a move or a sound. All those people, just as still and quiet as they could be.
Henshaw looked up at me, probably for no better reason than that I was the closest to him, and said, “You get him patched up, Doc, so’s he can get out of town. You tell him I ever see him again, I’m going to kill him.”
And with that he staggered off, pushing past me, toward the jail, not even bothering to retrieve his guns from Lou Boston who stood just behind him.
I had a couple of the boys help me get Coates over to my place. Lou handed me his guns and then went off to deliver Henshaw’s to the jail. By the time we were climbing up on the porch to my office, Coates’ was conscious and able, with help, to move under something resembling his own power.
I washed his face, then poured him a glass of whiskey, pouring another glass full of it into a saucer so I could use it to disinfect some of his cuts. He had a bunch of them. Both eyes were black, and he’d lost two teeth. The backs of his hands were lacerated and bruised, as was most of his face.
While I was taping up his broken rib, he said, “Man alive, that was some kind of fight, wasn’t it?”
By that time he’d told me his name, so I said, “Well, I’m glad somebody enjoyed it, Mr. Coates.”
“Billy, Doc. Call me Billy. Didn’t Henshaw enjoy it?”
“Of course not.”
“But he won.”
“Perhaps he did but he’s not the kind of man to appreciate the finer points of that sort of competition. While you were out he told me to tell you if he saw you again he’d kill you.”
“Not with his fists, he won’t” said Billy Coates.
“No,” I said. “With his guns. I don’t suppose his hands are any better off than yours are, but he’s still faster than you are.” I stopped swabbing a cut on the right side of his face and looked him in the eye. “You don’t stand a chance again him with a gun.”
“No, I suppose not. But this isn’t over. For one thing, I don’t believe he thinks it’s over, either.”
There was certainly truth in that. “Count your blessings then and get out of town while you can. He won’t follow you. He’s got a good thing here. As it is, you’ve been luckier than most.”
“I have?” he said, working his jaw tenderly.
“You sure have. His specialty is pistol whipping a man.”
Coates lifted his eyebrows up as if he’d never heard of such a thing. “What?”
“Hitting a man over the head with a pistol.”
“He does that? He really does that?”
“I seen him do it a few times. He’s done it often since he became marshal. I’ve seen men he’s pistol whipped so bad they almost didn’t recover, too. One of these days he’s going to kill somebody that way.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Coates.
He was putting his shirt back on. “What do I owe you, Doc?”
“We’re even if you give me your word you’ll get out of town.”
“Sorry, can’t do that. But I tell you what. Have dinner with me at Boston’s tomorrow night, and I’ll foot the bill.”
“One way or another,” I told him, “You won’t be here tomorrow night.”
I went to bed that night hoping I’d never see Coates again.
Lou’s Mexican lady cook doesn’t do as well with eggs as she does with steak, so the next morning I was having breakfast at Rio’s when in sauntered Billy Coates. He sits down, orders the same thing I’m having and digs in a bit gingerly because of his lacerated jaw and missing teeth, I imagine. But he’s cleaned up and wearing a shirt that isn’t drenched in blood. I opened the conversation by telling him what a fool I thought he was.
“It’s a great day to be a fool, Doc,” he said, spreading butter on a piece of toast. “Seen our friend the marshal, lately?”
“Not this morning. Don’t tell me you’re stupid enough to be looking for him.”
“You know, I haven’t heard a compliment out of you yet,” he said.
“Son,” I replied. “You’re pushing too hard and I don’t know why. But if you keep it up, what you’ll be pushing is daisies. Is that what you want?”
He gave me a sober look and said, “No it isn’t. Doc, I’m sorry if this seems foolhardy to you. It isn’t, but I can’t explain. You’ll just have to watch me play out my hand, that’s all.”
And he finished eating and went out on the street.
I took my time but it was probably only about five minutes later that I went outside. It was a bright day, the sun already over the tops of the buildings and threatening to boil down on us like the very devil. Coates was leaning against a post not far from where I was, watching the jail across the street.
I said, “You don’t want to let him hit you on that broken rib, son.”
He said, “We aren’t going to fight with fists any more and you know it.”
I did, too. That’s when I gave up, I guess. I swore like a stevedore at him and stalked off. I was half a block away when I saw Henshaw.
He’d washed off the blood from his face and hands, but he wore the same blood-dried shirt he’d fought in, and it didn’t look to me like his injuries had received much attention. He saw Coates and he stopped right where he was and just stared.
Coates moved out into the street and neither of them took his eyes off the other. Henshaw took a step toward him and Coates said, “We don’t have to be any closer than this, do we?”
Henshaw gave a snort and said, “Not if you don’t want to be.”
I knew then the dance was commencing and my heart sank because I knew that Billy was dead, then. Whatever happened then, and whether or not Henshaw would be punished for it – and I didn’t think he would be – I knew Billy was dead. And all because he was being so damned pigheaded.
This time the fight wasn’t attracting people into the street, it was clearing it. Passersby, as they realized what was about to happen, ran for the cover of stores and saloons and, when there was no time to reach anything else, alleyways and water barrels. But not me. I just stood there on the boardwalk, holding onto a post to support myself from falling, watching the entire thing as fascinated as a bird by a snake. I can’t now tell you what they said or whether they
truly said anything. But I saw Henshaw go for his gun, lift it from its scabbard and pull back the hammer with his thumb. Coates was so slow he seemed to be making no effort at all. Henshaw lifted the gun to eye level and aimed carefully before he pulled the trigger. And when he pulled it, his gun blew up in his hand.
I spent the rest of that day working over Henshaw. His right eye was gone, put out by a shard of metal from his gun; he was lucky, I think, that it did not penetrate to the brain. The thumb of his right hand was mangled and lacerated beyond saving, but that did not matter because I had to amputate his entire right hand and forearm. There were dozens of cuts and wounds in his chest and side but they were, for the most part, the least of his worries. Somehow he managed to stay alive, though.
It was two days before I managed to get out of my house. That evening I had dinner with Billy Coates. I’d been told they’d offered him the now open job of town marshal, but he’d turned it down “with reluctance.” Maybe he was smarter than I thought.
“How did you make his gun blow up like that?” I asked.
“I didn’t,” he said, cutting his steak. “I just knew it was going to happen, that’s all.”
Before I could finish he said, “Because you told me.”
“Why don’t you tell me the whole story,” I said. “The stuff you said I wouldn’t understand before.”
“There’s not a lot to tell,” he said. “Back in 78, I was a policeman in Dodge City. Ed Masterson was the town marshal, and I worked with his brother Jim, Nat Haywood, Wyatt Earp –”
“And Charlie Moore,” I finished for him.
“My cousin,” Billy Coates said.
“You came here just to avenge your cousin?”
“Hell, no. I came here to find out what happened. And visit Charlie’s grave if I could. Most of the family’s back east. I was just the only one who could get out here and find out what went on.”
“I never thought you were a gunfighter. I looked at your hands,” I said, “and saw the calluses and rope burns and scars and I figured you for a hostler or a cowboy.”
“Well, I’m sure not a gunfighter. If it’d been a straight gunfight, I’d likely be dead right now. I’m a surveyor, mostly, though I’ve done some hunting and worked on river boats.”
“You were in Dodge with the Mastersons and Wyatt Earp.”
“That doesn’t make me a gunfighter, does it? I knew Wyatt and the Mastersons because I’d hunted buffalo with them when I was a
kid. My cousin Charlie and my dad, who was still alive then, took me on hunts with them. Cousin Charlie got me the job on the city police force. I didn’t stay long. I lost my heart for police work when Ed Masterson was killed.”
I could understand that much, at least. I said, “So tell me, why’d his gun go off like that?”
“Because he’d been using it to buffalo people,” Billy said.
“Isn’t that what they did in Dodge? Whenever a cowboy became rowdy, didn’t they just coldcock him with a pistol and drag him off to jail?”
“They’d hit him over the head, but not with a pistol, sure enough not with any pistol they intended to ever shoot with. That knocks the gun out of alignment. It isn’t fit to shoot with after that.”
“But everybody knows –”
“They used blackjacks, that’s what they used. Believe me, nobody ever knocked one of them things out of alignment. The gun story was invented by Ned Buntline for the dime novels. Henshaw had heard the stories and wasn’t smart enough to do any better than imitate them.”
“I saw a newspaper article where Wyatt said –”
“I love Wyatt and I respect him, but I swear Doc. Wyatt says a lot of things and most of it to reporters. Besides, it sounds more manly
to say you hit a man with your gun rather than a blackjack. Nobody knows but you because you don’t show people what you plan to hit them with before you do it.”
“Then you knew the gun would explode?”
“No, I didn’t. I figured it wouldn’t shoot very accurately. The explosion was just a bonus.”
I thought long and hard about what to say next but the best I could come up with was, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“That’s likely,” agreed Billy. “I suspect it’s more than likely for me.”
“And you won’t take up the offer to become Jimson Weed’s new marshal?”
He shook his head. “I plan to leave town tomorrow. Even a guy like Henshaw might have a cousin somewhere.”