The Eighth Gunsmoke Basket (in progress)

I was going to kill that piano player. I had been staring at him all night over the tops of my cards, tracking his long, thin fingers as they crawled back and forth over the ivories. Watching how fast they worked. But the rest of him? Why, he was nothing more than an old moss-back, frail and wasted looking, the tattered extremity of all those yarns that had preceded him. Bodie. Abilene. San Antonio. El Reno. Sacramento. God damn Weston, Missouri. Where, as the tale goes, he faced down half the James-Younger gang with nothing but a parlour gun and a hatchet after a .36 caliber slug bored through one of his lungs and took up permanent residence deep within his chest.

As the tale goes.

He should have died that day. And on all the the other days. Like that morning in Bodie when Ham Collins, in a less-than-sober effort to collect a sizable bounty, kicked in the door of the room where the piano player had been lodging and began firing wildly. His last bullet chewed its way in the pianist’s liver after smashing through the wall behind which the he had taken cover when Collins made his clumsy entrance. As the drunken gunfighter made to reload, his prize cashed him out with a .50 caliber slug to the chest. And for good measure one to the head. The innkeeper had to pry Collins’ teeth out of the floorboards with a penknife.

As the tale goes.

He should have died a long time ago. And yet here he was drubbing the hell out of Stephen-god-damned-Douglas in the middle of Delamar. “I don’t ask questions,” the bartender responded when I asked him about the one-and-only. Was real squirrely about it, too. “Quiet feller. Don’t talk to nobody. But he keeps the place lively and he’s free.”

“What do you mean ‘he’s free?'”

“Won’t take no pay. Refused it flat out. Just said he wanted to play until his time came.” That’s when I knew. The dead don’t take pay for services rendered. They just serve.

The bartender was smartly dressed as bartenders go, but he had a rancid look about him, something that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. Like a piece of meat just gone bad. The brain registers that it smells and looks okay, but your gut, in response to some secret foretaste of private corruption, recoils. “Anyway, I ain’t complaining none. And neither should you, son.” He poured my shot and left the bottle, a clear sign that he was done talking. Once I was done with the piano player, I meant to fix that bartender. I’d be doing him a favor.

Some folks had it in their heads that the gun-slinging piano player had been elected to do the Lord’s dirty work. That he saw to it that when the laws of man failed, as they so often did, that the laws of heaven would supersede. As the tale goes, he cut a crooked sheriff in half with a double load of buckshot in San Antonio, then sent three of his deputies on a Texas cakewalk. But not before he made each of them empty the loads from their shooting irons and swallow each round. Payback for the one he took in the gut by the sheriff after he interrupted his public pistol-whipping of a boy, not more than ten or eleven, for stealing. At least he gave the deputies whiskey so they could do the job right. Strung ’em up by their gun belts. Singlehandedly.

As the tale goes.

“And almost all things are by the law purged with blood,” the good book tells us, “and without shedding of blood is no remission.” A rather profane form of divine justice, if you ask me. And if the tales are to be believed, I don’t reckon it a blasphemy to say that sometimes the mysterious ways of the Almighty lack moral imagination. A man who doesn’t pay his debts is a thief, but a god who doesn’t undertake his own collections is a coward.

So some of us are left to do the dirty work of providence run amuck. And there’s a lot of dirty work that needs doing.

After Tombstone he disappeared for nearly ten years before turning up one night at a watering hole down in Coloma. Walked right in, ordered a bottle of bourbon, and tucked himself into the old parlour organ and began playing. Didn’t stop for two days. Didn’t touch the bottle of bourbon. When the bartender’s eggs finally dropped and he asked the drifter to give the keys a little rest on account of the girls upstairs, the man, still clad in his duster and spurs, looked up and smiled. A ragged furrow of scar tissue over the left eye which receded over the temple and tapered off just above the ear caught the light, and the bartender stumbled backward as if momentarily blinded. He fled his own establishment and never looked back. Packed up his family and his belongings the next day and hitched his team for some unspoken destination, all the while muttering something about the “eighth conferment.”

It was Johnny Ringo who sealed it. The eighth gunsmoke basket. Eight lead pills, each administered by a malicious hand to a separate vital organ where they nested and festered, necrotizing the soul as it nourished the body with spite. The Lord’s work, the Devil’s work . . . it’s all the same. The powers-that-be exist in service to the actions of those who serve. The power to do good or evil is simply a product of intent. Shoot a man because you hate him, and you get a pitchfork shoved up your ass. Shoot a man in retribution for a sin, and you get a pair of wings. Not so far removed from the man-made laws that see vicious murders kill with impunity without punishment and God-fearing men hanged for their incorruptibility. Ain’t no magic in that. God, the Devil . . . hell, they’re just scavengers feeding off the

It was Ringo’s bullet, its deadly trajectory bent just far enough so that it grazed the piano player’s las the final act of blood-borne sacrament imparted by the hands of evil men, the one that annuls a man’s claim to the afterlife and binds him to the earth, arms him with hell-defying animus, and binds his fate to whatever supernatural perogative had decreed that he must live so that others may die. Ringo made him untouchable. A lone rider on a very dark prairie.

The day after the piano player left Tombstone, a rancher found Ringo’s body under an old oak tree in West Turkey Creek. He was propped up against the trunk as if he had fallen asleep. The body was still warm when the rancher arrived, and just before he knelt to examine the wound on Ringo’s temple he saw a lone rider in the distance heading west and canting heavily across the withers of a Colorado Ranger he had seen in town the night before. He knew who the rider was for he had witnessed him leave the Crystal Palace Saloon after Ringo had challenged him to a dual. Said that each of them was one pull away from the eighth but that there could only be one. Ringo was an educated man, but not smart enough to know that the eighth could only be given, not taken. We are simply the means, not the ends. Props in a celestial bag of tricks.

Yes, I was going to kill that piano player. Test his magical sleight of hand. I wanted to be the hard hand to send his molocher flying and sign the legend over to a pine box, the one to tunnel a dusty hole right through that reedy chest of his just to see if he had all those stories still locked away deep inside of him. I wanted to snap his thin, withered neck like an old broody hen.

“Carson, you gonna sit there all day fanning that ugly face of yours, or you gonna throw in?” Amos shifted his cigarillo and leaned over the table. “I know what you’re thinkin’, boy,” he whispered, “and you don’t want to go there. Ain’t nobody seen that train of thought to its destination and lived to tell about it. Best you just focus on losing.”

Perkins spread his gums into a tobacco-stained smirk, the whiskey on his breath thick and sour. “At least show your hand before you run off to get killed.”

I returned his smile and laid my cards down very slowly. The other men at the table leaned forward to examine my hand.

Perkins’ expression curdled. “The hell is this?! This some kind of a joke, Carson?”

I gathered the cards and laid them out into a five-spread formation so that they formed a cross. The other men at the table blanched. “Yes, Perkins. A very sick joke. But before I kill you and every god-forsaken fiend in this hell hole, I’m going to read you your rites.”

Perkins leaned back in his hair and smiled wickedly, his formerly whiskey-shot eyes now glazed Crimson and his rotted teeth now filed to tiny serrated daggers. A low, rumbling snarl, like coals being fed into locomotive’s firebox, roiled deep within his chest.

The sound was followed by the winding clockwork of a hammer drawing back a drawing time on a target.

“Move and I’ll blow your nether parts back to Abaddon.” I shift my stare to the other men at the table. They regard me warily, but their baleful stares, each tinged in the varying shades of their subservient ranks—yellow, violet, green—clearly communicate their murderous desires. I nod in their direction, “And in case any of you boys get into those worm-eaten heads of yours to pull your irons, you should know I’ve brought some friends.”

I folded back the left lapel of my duster to show them what they already suspected was there. The Ring of Bullets. Seven in all strung together on a rope of silver threads. I had come to collect the eighth and final piece. “And if I don’t get what I came for,” I pulled the lapel further, “we’re all going back to hell.”

Which would have suited me just fine. The twenty sticks of dynamite wrapped around my torso made it hard to enjoy what would probably be my last drink, and the blasting caps had been digging into chest all night. “Special order just for you, Perkins.”

The phlegmatic rumbling in Perkins chest that passed for a laugh in other places would have drained the blood from my face had I never heard it before. Like a grizzly trying to digest a bucket of pitch. But I just smiled back.

“Boy,” he leaned in closer, the heat coming off of him was like standing broadside to a furnace, “my soul swims in fire. The only thing you’re little sulfur and brimstone matchsticks are gonna do is waste a lot of good whiskey.”

I leaned in so that we were eye-to-eye, my smile stretching wider. “Boy, I whispered, “you think I didn’t pack my tinderbox with silver nitrate and a shitload of garlic and wild roses?”

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