THE OTHER GUNFIGHT - A PREVIEW
THE SMELL OF HORSE dung clung to everything. It was like a swarm of ants on a sugar cube and I began to taste it with each breath. Even my horse wrinkled his nose in disgust at the reek that lingered in the air around us. I tried to ignore it, but the stench coming off of Tombstone, Arizona was hard to ignore.
It’s not that Tombstone smelled worse than any other town. That’s just how it was out here. Horses were everywhere and they defecate where they please, so you’re gonna have to put up with the smell if you want to make it in the West. And I do, put up with the smell, but I don’t have to like it. At least it ain’t New York City. Now that is a city that stinks. There are some areas in New York that smell like an outhouse in July. No thanks. Give me the smell of horse and the wide open spaces any day. But still, I could do without it.
I eased up to the hitching rail outside the nearest saloon, Hafford’s, hoping that the taste of whiskey might make up for the smell. I tied off the horse, grabbed up my saddle bags and, throwing them over a shoulder, stepped into the saloon.
Tombstone was supposed to be booming, and it certainly seemed to be, but as I strode into Hafford’s, I found it all but empty, apart from me and the barkeep, who was too busy wiping down the top of the bar to pay me much attention.
“How do?” I said, touching the brim of my hat as I cozied up to the bar.
I didn’t need to worry about him recognizing me. I’d aged a bit, and grown a beard. Besides, once I’d died the papers had stopped writing about me. The dime novels were still in full production, but they never could get anything right. More fiction than fact, they were. Almost as bad as the newspapers.
“What’ll it be?” the barkeep said.
He was an older gentleman, gray and stooped. What little hair he had on his head had gathered mostly around the ears, leaving the sun to bounce gentle beams of light from off of his bald pate. The rest had long since migrated to his eyebrows and mustache, leaving his face just a nose and chin that stuck out through a forest of gray.
“Whiskey,” I said, slapping three large coins onto the worn but clean bar top. “The good stuff, not the watered down piss you give your regulars.”
I’d never been in this particular saloon before in my life, but I’ve been in plenty, and if there’s one thing I know it’s that every single one of them keeps two types of whiskey behind the bar. The whiskey they’ve watered down and the whiskey that they have not. The former they serve to the endless mob of regulars who come in each night – miners, cow hands, teamsters, and such. The latter they keep on hand for folks who were willing to pay a little extra for a bit of the real thing.
Folks like me.
He didn’t move. It was hard to tell through the eyebrows but I figured he was glaring at me. I didn’t blame him; I was rather choice with the words I’d used to describe his whiskey. Some bartenders tend to take stuff like that a bit personally. So I showed him one of my best smiles and eventually he tossed the rag aside long enough to bang a shot glass down in front of me. He was silent as he filled the glass from an old, dusty bottle; just continued to stare me down through those bushes over his eyes.
I tilted back my head and threw the whiskey down my throat in one quick gulp, grimacing in sick satisfaction as it burned all the way down my gullet.
“That’s some mighty fine whiskey,” I said. “I’ll take the bottle.” I slid a couple of folded bills across the bar top. “And some information.”
“What kind of information’re you looking for?” the bartender said, setting the bottle down in front of me.
I snatched the bottle and pulled out the cork with an audible squeak and pop.
“I’m looking for a man,” I said. There was no reason to lie. “Goes by the name of Claiborne.” I poured myself another shot. “He been in today?”
“He’s one of them cowboys,” he said, spitting out the last word like an insult. “What business you got with him?”
“My business is my own,” I said, then downed the shot.
“Well he ain’t here,” the bartender said. “And today ain’t a good day to go looking for him either.”
“He comes in here though?” I said.
“Sure. From time to time.”
“I got nowhere to be for now,” I said. I pulled my pocket watched and checked the time. I had less than thirty minutes. “I’ll wait.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. Then he went back to wiping down the bar top.
I took the glass and the bottle and found a table near the back. Before I took more than four steps toward it, however, I turned back to the bar. The barkeep was back to wiping down the bar, but his attention was focused on the street outside the window.
“I’m sorry, but would you be able to tell me what today is?” I asked.
“Wednesday.” He frowned. He was clearly growing tired of me.
“And the date?”
He sighed. “The twenty-sixth.”
He threw the rag down. “October.”
That question he did not answer. He only frowned once more, took up the rag, and turned his back on me. I took it for a yes.
I was where, and most importantly when, I wanted to be, so I moved to the back table and sat. I poured a drink.
Ten minutes and three shots later, a man walked into the saloon. He was dressed in a black coat over a white shirt with a string cravat. His hat was black, and so was his mustache, which was clean and trim, though full. He had a presence about him, something I’d sensed the moment he’d walked into the saloon. This was a fella who could take care of himself and did not suffer fools, you could see it in his face and the way he carried himself.
The man wore a gun on his hip. It wasn’t uncommon to see a man go about heeled, but Tombstone had rule about carrying firearms within city limits. I knew this fact because I saw the sign as I rode in, and like the law abiding fella that I am, I went straight to the local constabulary to hand over my guns. Not all of them, mind you. What guns I turned over were just my decoy guns. I had a pair of pistols and gun belts in my saddle bags which now sat on the floor next my chair.
The fella in black however, he wore his gun in plain sight. And I didn’t see a badge on his chest.
I knew who he was the moment he’d walked through the door. Even if I hadn’t recognized him, I’d been briefed in full.
The man gave me a long and considered look. I nodded to him, and he nodded right back. He dismissed me and pulled out a chair at a table near the door. He didn't sit right away. He placed the gun on the table, the heavy revolver making a low clunking sound as connected with the wood. Then he sat, his pistol within easy reach.
“Your usual, Wyatt?” the bartender asked.
“Mm,” was the man’s only reply.
The man, Wyatt, sat to the side of the table and kicked one of his booted feet up onto a chair across from him and looked out onto the street beyond the double batwing doors.
The bartender bustled around the bar with a coffee in a delicate cup and saucer and placed them on the table next to the pistol.
“Thanks, Clem,” Wyatt said. “How about one of them cigars?” He pronounced it ‘see-gars’.
“Sure Wyatt,” the bartender said, and fetched him one.
“Is there gonna be a fight, Wyatt?” Clem asked.
“I'm afraid there must be,” Wyatt said, and then lit his cigar with a wooden match.
Clem took a step away, hesitated for a moment, then turned back to Wyatt who puffed stoically away.
“Do you need any help?”
“No thanks, Clem,” Wyatt said with a slight smile.
I tried not to smile.
Of course there was going to be a fight. They’d be talking about it for the next three centuries. But that wasn’t why I was here.
A fight was going to happen, sure enough. People were going to die.
My job was to make sure that it was the right people.