Fistful of Bad Guys, and an Ugly"
by David M. Fitzpatrick
I packed up everything I owned, which fit
into one suitcase, and left Pennsylvania for Elmworth City, Nevada—one of
those Manifest Destiny settlements that was supposed to become an urban
oasis in the Great Wild West. I was in search of adventure, and thought a
thriving frontier city would be a good place to start.
After several smoky train trips and
one long, dusty stagecoach ride, I realized that calling it a city
was merely positive thinking. It consisted of a few dozen buildings
in the main town and six dozen homesteads in a three-mile radius. It
was a rugged place in a hostile, alien world, built through the
sweat and tears of frontier settlers determined to make it succeed.
There I was, a young piano player
without a single half-dime in my pocket to take me any further. I
hadn’t had the gumption to run out to California like the rest of
those get-rich-now panners who flocked there after gold was found at
Sutter’s Mill, and thought instead that a growing frontier city
would be the place for a talented musician to make his coin.
Elmworth City wasn’t what I’d expected, but I could play the piano
like nobody else, and certainly better than those mechanical player
pianos that came along a few years later. Besides, no roll of paper
can ever bring soul and feeling out of a piano like a man can.
As it happened, the saloon in Elmworth
had lost its piano player just the week before and needed another
one. I went into the Happy Whore and found its proprietor, a right
fine man name of Silas North, and asked about the job. I figured I
could work there a while and earn enough money to go to California
after all—to San Francisco, a real city, and to hell with the
He sort of
looked me up and down as he was wiping whiskey glasses clean with a
cotton cloth and said, “This is a shit-hole bar in the middle of
nowhere, son. You don’t want no job here, kid like you.”
I told him I did, and that I’d spent
all the money I had to get there. He said, “You know why I lost my
piano player last week?”
do not, sir,” I said.
Jimmy was killed, right where he sat,” he said, gesturing with his
eyes at the piano against the wall. “All because Blackheart John
wanted him to play ‘Long Night in Raleigh.’”
“Then if Blackheart John wants me to
play that song, I will,” I said.
“Jimmy didn’t refuse to play it.
Blackheart John shot him through the heart because the unfortunate
bastard just didn’t know how to play it.”
“Well, I know it,” I said.
He furrowed his brow and set the clean
glass down on the bar, leaning in closer to me. “What’s a young
feller like you trying to find a career playing piano in some
whorehouse bar way out here?”
“I’m just looking for a little
adventure, sir—looking for something different than working a farm
a grin then, and we bantered about for a while, and to make this a
short story, he hired me. I’d play piano in the evenings, but I’d
help out in general around the place the rest of the time. As it
turned out, Blackheart John had led his gang of outlaws through
Elmworth looking for trouble, and found it. After gunning down the
the town marshal and his two deputies, he got drunk at the Whore,
where he shot Jimmy. There were already a new marshal and deputies.
All the town needed was me to bring some music to the place.
Inside a few weeks, I knew everyone,
including Silas’ beautiful daughter, Merry, spelled just like that.
Merry Anna North worked in her daddy’s saloon—not as a whore,
thankfully—and it didn’t take long for us to get sweet on each
other. She was sixteen, four years my junior, pretty as a picture
with alabaster skin, beautiful golden curls, and bright eyes that
sparkled like ice crystals under a street lamp. Every time she
looked at me and smiled, it sent tickling shivers up my spine and
through my groin.
months, we shared our first kiss, and we were hopelessly in love.
Hell, I’d even held onto my virginity—in a brothel full of whores
who constantly enticed me—because my heart belonged to Merry. We
smooched secretly wherever we could, usually in the back room, where
Silas kept his kegs and bottles. It was one such session, wrapped in
each other’s arms as I wrestled with the pleasant demons of lust,
when Merry pulled away and said, “Do you love me, Jack?”
“I certainly do,” I said, breathless.
“Then why haven’t you yet asked me to
“I plan to. I’m
just waiting for a bit, that’s all.”
“Please, don’t wait too long,” she
said. “If you marry me, then we can go back to Pennsylvania and work
on your daddy’s farm, and... do more than just kiss.”
“I promise we will,” I said. “But not
just yet. I can’t go back home without some kind of adventure to
“Well, you find that
adventure real soon, Jack Payson,” she said with that pudgy-cheeked
smile that drove me wild. “I just can’t wait!”
It couldn’t have been better timing,
because Blackheart John came back to town that night. But we had
another visitor that nobody could ever have expected.
The Happy Whore was busy that Saturday
night, the townsfolk wanting to get all their sinning in so Reverend
Morrill could save their souls for it the next morning. Everyone was
in a good mood—sinning brings that out in people—and I was playing
up a storm on that old piano. Nobody was too drunk, but if they
started to get that way, Silas would direct them to the upstairs
railing, which was lined with his ladies in short dresses and tall
stockings. A trip upstairs for a few minutes sobered them up and put
a few more dollars in Silas’ pocket, and then it was back downstairs
for music, drinking, and darts.
Merry was behind the bar with her
father, arguing about not wanting the unfortunate task of emptying
the spittoons, when gunshots sounded outside in the street. Everyone
stopped talking, I stopped playing, and we all spun about to look at
the batwing doors.
the horses clopping down the dark, dusty street, heard the whooping
and hollering of their riders, heard them reining up and
dismounting. Ben Deering, a rancher from the other side of Trump
Hill, who was closest to the front window, hurried over and peered
out. When he spun back, his face was as white as his widened eyes.
“It’s Blackheart John!” he hissed. “He’s come back!”
“God damn that suffering bastard!”
Silas spat, and he dug under his counter and came up with a big
shotgun, which I knew was loaded and ready. “He’s not doing this
“Put it away, Silas!”
cried Louie Michaud. “There’s too many of them!” Louie was an old
Maine sailor who’d given up fishing when New Yorkers and Bostonians
decided they’d rather eat lobster. He’d come out here to retire, not
to endure vicious outlaws shooting up his town.
Silas froze for a moment, but Merry
tugged on his arm and begged him to listen. Outside, many men were
tying up their horses. Then came the telltale sounds of boots
clomping on the wooden porch that fronted the saloon, punctuated by
the jangling of spurs.
it away!” Ben Deering, our blacksmith, pleaded, and at the last
moment, Silas bent over and stuffed the gun back under the counter.
He was no sooner upright than the men appeared in the doorway.
Blackheart John pushed the batwing
doors open and stepped in, and he was a frightening sight. He was
damn near six feet and six inches, with shoulders broader than
Samson. His outfit was as black as his heart was reputed: black,
floor-length leather duster; a big black hat with the widest brim
I’d ever seen; black shirt and pants; and black boots. His thick
black hair was unkempt and wild, spilling over his shoulders and
down his chest. He sported a handlebar mustache, and his face was
dark with stubble. He looked like a giant Italian, with perhaps a
bit of Chinese and Indian ancestry.
He brought a presence with him that
chilled me to my bones, a feeling of pure evil that hung in the air
like the stink of death. And I couldn’t help but recall with sheer
terror the tales I’d head of what had happened to the last man
sitting in my piano chair when Blackheart John had visited the Happy
He crossed the room
toward the bar, his gang of eight thugs following. The word was
Blackheart John had knocked off banks and stages all across the
frontier lands, and those eight men would live and die at his
And then he stopped
in the middle of the room, and slowly he turned, turned, turned...
until he was looking right at me.
“I seem to remember killing you,” he
said to me in a baritone voice that seemed from the throat of Satan
himself. His black eyes smoldered like coals in the pits of Hell.
I didn’t soil myself, but I admit I
leaked out a few drops of piss. You would have, too. I tried to
answer, but didn’t know what to say, and couldn’t speak if I’d
“You deaf, boy?” he
growled at me, and his gang snickered.
I shook my head, my body trembling
like a leaf in a storm.
what do you say, boy?” he said. “Didn’t I kill you?”
And, God help me, I have no idea where
my stupidity came from, but I said, “Obviously not, sir, because I’m
sitting here alive.”
could have heard a pin drop in that saloon.
Blackheart John squared his massive
shoulders and flexed, and his duster opened and I saw the gigantic
Colt Dragoons he wore low on his hips. In that moment I knew I was
about to be shot dead. I was scared, but all I could think about was
that Merry was going to have to watch it happen. I turned my head,
unsteady across a shaky neck, to her and our eyes met, and in that
look we both said I love you. Hell of a time to find adventure.
Blackheart John saw this, and he
swiveled his head to her and broke into a lascivious smile. “Got
yourself a lady, do you, boy? Maybe instead of shooting you with my
gun... I’ll shoot your little lady with my other gun.”
His men laughed, and I knew what he
meant, and I couldn’t let it happen, and so I came up out of my
chair with the intention of saying something—anything—to bring his
attention back to me—but Blackheart John was ready, and his reflexes
were inhuman. He spun about and went for both of those big guns and
they were out before I’d even taken a step. Twin thunderclaps
sounded, and Merry screamed and I froze in place as the piano
erupted in a discordant cacophony.
He’d fired on either side of me and
into the piano. I think I pissed a little more then.
“You don’t move a muscle, boy,” he
snarled as he holstered his two smoking revolvers. “You stand right
there, and you watch me have my way with your lady. You even twitch
a finger, and my boys’ll gun you down. Meanwhile, barkeep,” he said
to Silas, “your new lawmen are out there dead in the street, so
don’t you or anyone here think about fucking with us. So you pour us
all shots of firewater and set out bottles of beer while I break the
Silas was trembling, and I could tell he was weighing whether to go
for his shotgun. It would be suicide to try, and we all knew it. But
I knew he’d do it, because a father would have to try.
You could have heard another pin drop.
“You deaf, too, barkeep?” Blackheart
John said. “Pour those damn drinks. And you, lady, get your wide ass
Merry laid her
hand on her father’s arm, as if to comfort him or perhaps silently
tell him not to risk what he was thinking, and she moved out from
behind the bar. As soon as she was within Blackheart John’s reach,
he grabbed her and threw her over a table as if she were a ragged
scarecrow. As he hauled her dress up from behind and fiercely tore
away her delicates, I realized that even if Silas dared to go for
his shotgun, he couldn’t fire at the outlaw without hitting Merry
with the spread. And me, just a piano-playing farmboy from
Pennsylvania—I didn’t even own a gun to at least try to defend my
“Yeah, that’s the sweet
gates of heaven, right there,” Blackheart John said with a deep
chuckle as he reached for his buckle. “You hold right on, darling.
This’ll be over soon. Then you can take care of my boys.”
They all whooped and cheered, and I
saw my life about to come completely apart around me. I wanted
adventure, but this wasn’t the adventure I wanted.
And from outside came the sound of
boots clomping on wooden boards, with the jangling of spurs. At
first, I thought it was another of Blackheart John’s men, but the
gang all turned to see who it was, and even Blackheart John paused
and turned, keeping his hand on the small of Merry’s back, as the
shadowy form of the new arrival came into view above the batwing
They slowly opened,
and the stranger stepped in. Everyone gawked as the doors swung
lazily back and forth on double-action hinges behind him.
“What in tarnation...?” Ben Deering
tried, but even he was at a loss for words.
The stranger was less than six feet
tall, and not particularly broad-shouldered. His clothes were like
what any frontiersman might wear—a button-down shirt, brown
sailcloth pants, brown boots, and a tan hat with a reasonable brim.
And on his right hip, slung low to accommodate an unnaturally long
arm, was a holstered gun. But all normalcy ended with his outfit.
His skin was green like the springtime
leaves of apple trees, and his face was framed by long blue hair
that looked as fine as corn silk. His bright-yellow eyes were as big
as duck eggs and set at angles—not quite on the sides of his head,
but not straight on, either, although his black pupils, tall and
rectangular like a goat’s, faced forward. He had no nose, but tall,
narrow nostrils, like two knife wounds, were set high between those
eyes. His lipless mouth spanned his extra-wide jaw, and he had six
fingers on each hand...
* * * * * *
This new gunslinger is from out of
town--from WAY out of town.
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