Joe Doolin’s my name. Cowhand--work for old Farrel over at Lazy F beyond the Pass. Never had much of anything exciting happen to me--just punched cows and lit up on payday--until the day I happened to ride through the Pass on my way to town and saw young Buck Tarrant’s draw.
Now, Buck’d always been a damn good shot. Once he got his gun in his hand he could put a bullet right where he wanted it up to twenty paces, and within an inch of his aim up to a hundred feet. But Lord God, he couldn’t draw to save his life--I’d seen him a couple of times before in the Pass, trying to. He’d face a tree and go into a crouch, and I’d know he was pretending the tree was Billy the Kid or somebody, and then he’d slap leather--and his clumsy hand would wallop his gunbutt, he’d yank like hell, his old Peacemaker would come staggering out of his holster like a bear in heat, and finally he’d line on his target and plug it dead center. But the whole business took about a second and a half, and by the time he’d ever finished his fumbling in a real fight, Billy the Kid or Sheriff Ben Randolph over in town or even me, Joe Doolin, could have cut him in half.
So this time, when I was riding along through the Pass, I saw Buck upslope from me under the trees, and I just grinned and didn’t pay too much attention.
He stood facing an old elm tree, and I could see he’d tacked a playing card about four feet up the trunk, about where a man’s heart would be.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him go into his gunman’s crouch. He was about sixty feet away from me, and, like I said, I wasn’t paying much mind to him.
I heard the shot, flat down the rocky slope that separated us. I grinned again, picturing that fumbly draw of his, the wild slap at leather, the gun coming out drunklike, maybe even him dropping it--I’d seen him do that once or twice.
It got me to thinking about him, as I rode closer.
He was a bad one. Nobody said any different than that. Just bad. He was a bony runt of about eighteen, with bulging eyes and a wide mouth that was always turned down at the corners. He got his nickname Buck because he had buck teeth, not because he was heap man. He was some handy with his fists, and he liked to pick ruckuses with kids he was sure he could lick. But the tipoff on Buck is that he’d bleat like a two-day calf to get out of mixing with somebody he was scared of--which meant somebody his own size or bigger. He’d jaw his way out of it, or just turn and slink away with his tail along his belly. His dad had died a couple years before, and he lived with his ma on a small ranch out near the Pass. The place was falling to pieces, because Buck wouldn’t lift a hand to do any work around--his ma just couldn’t handle him at all. Fences were down, and the yard was all weedgrown, and the house needed some repairs--but all Buck ever did was hang around town, trying to rub up against some of the tough customers who drank in the Once Again Saloon, or else he’d ride up and lie around under the trees along the top of the Pass and just think--or, like he was today, he’d practise drawing and throwing down on trees and rocks.
Guess he always wanted to be tough. Really tough. He tried to walk with tough men, and, as we found out later, just about all he ever thought about while he was lying around was how he could be tougher than the next two guys. Maybe you’ve known characters like that--for some damfool reason they just got to be able to whup anybody who comes along, and they feel low and mean when they can’t, as if the size of a man’s fist was the size of the man.
So that’s Buck Tarrant--a halfsized, poisonous, no-good kid who wanted to be a hardcase.
But he’d never be, not in a million years. That’s what made it funny--and kind of pitiful too. There wasn’t no real strength in him, only a scared hate. It takes guts as well as speed to be tough with a gun, and Buck was just a nasty little rat of a kid who’d probably always counterpunch his way through life when he punched at all. He’d kite for cover if you lifted a lip.
I heard another shot, and looked up the slope. I was near enough now to see that the card he was shooting at was a ten of diamonds--and that he was plugging the pips one by one. Always could shoot, like I said.
Then he heard me coming, and whirled away from the tree, his gun holstered, his hand held out in front of him like he must have imagined Hickock or somebody held it when he was ready to draw.
I stopped my horse about ten feet away and just stared at him. He looked real funny in his baggy old levis and dirty checkered shirt and that big gun low on his hip, and me knowing he couldn’t handle it worth a damn.
“Who you trying to scare, Buck?” I said. I looked him up and down and snickered. “You look about as dangerous as a sheepherder’s wife.”
“And you’re a son of a bitch,” he said.
I stiffened and shoved out my jaw. “Watch that, runt, or I’ll get off and put my foot in your mouth and pull you on like a boot!”
“Will you now,” he said nastily, “you son of a bitch?”
And he drew on me ... and I goddam near fell backwards off my saddle!
I swear, I hadn’t even seen his hand move, he’d drawn so fast! That gun just practically appeared in his hand!
“Will you now?” he said again, and the bore of his gun looked like a greased gate to hell.
I sat in my saddle scared spitless, wondering if this was when I was going to die. I moved my hands out away from my body, and tried to look friendlylike--actually, I’d never tangled with Buck, just razzed him a little now and then like everybody did; and I couldn’t see much reason why he’d want to kill me.
But the expression on his face was full of gloating, full of wildness, full of damn-you recklessness--exactly the expression you’d look to find on a kid like Buck who suddenly found out he was the deadliest gunman alive.
And that’s just what he was, believe me.
Once I saw Bat Masterson draw--and he was right up there with the very best. Could draw and shoot accurately in maybe half a second or so--you could hardly see his hand move; you just heard the slap of hand on gunbutt, and a split-second later the shot. It takes a lot of practise to be able to get a gun out and on target in that space of time, and that’s what makes gunmen. Practise, and a knack to begin with. And, I guess, the yen to be a gunman, like Buck Tarrant’d always had.
When I saw Masterson draw against Jeff Steward in Abilene, it was that way--slap, crash, and Steward was three-eyed. Just a blur of motion.
But when Buck Tarrant drew on me, right now in the Pass, I didn’t see any motion atall. He just crouched, and then his gun was on me. Must have done it in a millionth of a second, if a second has millionths.
It was the fastest draw I’d ever seen. It was, I reckoned, the fastest draw anybody’s ever seen. It was an impossibly fast draw--a man’s hand just couldn’t move to his holster that fast, and grab and drag a heavy Peacemaker up in a two foot arc that fast.
It was plain damn impossible--but there it was.
And there I was.
I didn’t say a word. I just sat and thought about things, and my horse wandered a little farther up the slope and then stopped to chomp grass. All the time, Buck Tarrant was standing there, poised, that wild gloating look in his eyes, knowing he could kill me anytime and knowing I knew it.
When he spoke, his voice was shaky--it sounded like he wanted to bust out laughing, and not a nice laugh either.
“Nothing to say, Doolin?” he said. “Pretty fast, huh?”
I said, “Yeah, Buck. Pretty fast.” And my voice was shaky too, but not because I felt like laughing any.
He spat, eying me arrogantly. The ground rose to where he stood, and our heads were about on a level. But I felt he was looking down.
“Pretty fast!” he sneered. “Faster’n anybody!”
“I reckon it is, at that,” I said.
“Know how I do it?”
“I think, Doolin. I think my gun into my hand. How d’you like that?”
“It’s awful fast, Buck.”
“I just think, and my gun is there in my hand. Some draw, huh!”
“You’re damn right it is, Doolin. Faster’n anybody!”
I didn’t know what his gabbling about “thinking his gun into his hand” meant--at least not then, I didn’t--but I sure wasn’t minded to question him on it. He looked wild-eyed enough right now to start taking bites out of the nearest tree.
He spat again and looked me up and down. “You know, you can go to hell, Joe Doolin. You’re a lousy, God damn, white-livered son of a bitch.” He grinned coldly.
Not an insult, I knew now, but a deliberate taunt. I’d broken jaws for a lot less--I’m no runt, and I’m quick enough to hand back crap if some lands on me. But now I wasn’t interested.
He saw I was mad, though, and stood waiting.
“You’re fast enough, Buck,” I said, “so I got no idea of trying you. You want to murder me, I guess I can’t stop you--but I ain’t drawing. No, sir, that’s for sure.”
“And a coward to boot,” he jeered.
“Maybe,” I said. “Put yourself in my place, and ask yourself why in hell I should kill myself?”
“Yellow!” he snarled, looking at me with his bulging eyes full of meanness and confidence.
My shoulders got tight, and it ran down along my gun arm. I never took that from a man before.
“I won’t draw,” I said. “Reckon I’ll move on instead, if you’ll let me.”
And I picked up my reins, moving my hands real careful-like, and turned my horse around and started down the slope. I could feel his eyes on me, and I was half-waiting for a bullet in the back. But it didn’t come. Instead Buck Tarrant called, “Doolin!”
I turned my head. “Yeah?”
He was standing there in the same position. Somehow he reminded me of a crazy, runt wolf--his eyes were almost yellowish, and when he talked he moved his lips too much, mouthing his words, and his big crooked teeth flashed in the sun. I guess all the hankering for toughness in him was coming out--he was acting now like he’d always wanted to--cocky, unafraid, mean--because now he wore a bigger gun than anybody. It showed all over him, like poison coming out of his skin.
“Doolin,” he called. “I’ll be in town around three this afternoon. Tell Ben Randolph for me that he’s a son of a bitch. Tell him he’s a dunghead sheriff. Tell him he’d better look me up when I get there, or else get outa town and stay out. You got that?”
“I got it, Buck.”
“Call me Mr. Tarrant, you Irish bastard.”
“Okay ... Mr. Tarrant,” I said, and reached the bottom of the slope and turned my horse along the road through the Pass. About a hundred yards farther on, I hipped around in the saddle and looked back. He was practising again--the crouch, the fantastic draw, the shot.
I rode on toward town, to tell Ben Randolph he’d either have to run or die.
Ben was a lanky, slab-sided Texan who’d come up north on a drive ten years before and liked the Arizona climate and stayed. He was a good sheriff--tough enough to handle most men, and smart enough to handle the rest. Fourteen years of it had kept him lean and fast.
When I told him about Buck, I could see he didn’t know whether he was tough or smart or fast enough to get out of this one.
He leaned back in his chair and started to light his pipe, and then stared at the match until it burned his fingers without touching it to the tobacco.
“You sure, Joe?” he said.
“Ben, I saw it four times. At first I just couldn’t believe my eyes--but I tell you, he’s fast. He’s faster’n you or me or Hickock or anybody. God knows where he got it, but he’s got the speed.”
“But,” Ben Randolph said, lighting another match, “it just don’t happen that way.” His voice was almost mildly complaining. “Not overnight. Gunspeed’s something you work on--it comes slow, mighty slow. You know that. How in hell could Buck Tarrant turn into a fire-eating gunslinger in a few days?” He paused and puffed. “You sure, Joe?” he asked again, through a cloud of smoke.
“And he wants me.”
“That’s what he said.”
Ben Randolph sighed. “He’s a bad kid, Joe--just a bad kid. If his father hadn’t died, I reckon he might have turned out better. But his mother ain’t big enough to wallop his butt the way it needs.”
“You took his gun away from him a couple times, didn’t you, Ben?”
“Yeah. And ran him outa town too, when he got too pestiferous. Told him to get the hell home and help his ma.”
“Guess that’s why he wants you.”
“That. And because I’m sheriff. I’m the biggest gun around here, and he don’t want to start at the bottom, not him. He’s gonna show the world right away.”
“He can do it, Ben.”
He sighed again. “I know. If what you say’s true, he can sure show me anyhow. Still, I got to take him up on it. You know that. I can’t leave town.”
I looked at his hand lying on his leg--the fingers were trembling. He curled them into a fist, and the fist trembled.
“You ought to, Ben,” I said.
“Of course I ought to,” he said, a little savagely. “But I can’t. Why, what’d happen to this town if I was to cut and run? Is there anyone else who could handle him? Hell, no.”
“A crazy galoot like that,” I said slowly, “if he gets too damn nasty, is bound to get kilt.” I hesitated. “Even in the back, if he’s too good to take from the front.”
“Sure,” Ben Randolph said. “Sooner or later. But what about meantime? ... how many people will he have to kill before somebody gets angry or nervy enough to kill him? That’s my job, Joe--to take care of this kind of thing. Those people he’d kill are depending on me to get between him and them. Don’t you see?”
I got up. “Sure, Ben, I see. I just wish you didn’t.”
He let out another mouthful of smoke. “You got any idea what he meant about thinking his gun into his hand?”
“Not the slightest. Some crazy explanation he made up to account for his sudden speed, I reckon.”
Another puff. “You figure I’m a dead man, Joe, huh?”
“It looks kind of that way.”
“Yeah, it kind of does, don’t it?”
At four that afternoon Buck Tarrant came riding into town like he owned it. He sat his battered old saddle like a rajah on an elephant, and he held his right hand low beside his hip in an exaggerated gunman’s stance. With his floppy hat over at a cocky angle, and his big eyes and scrawny frame, he’d have looked funny as hell trying to look like a tough hombre--except that he was tough now, and everybody in town knew it because I’d warned them. Otherwise somebody might have jibed him, and the way things were now, that could lead to a sudden grave.
Nobody said a word all along the street as he rode to the hitchrail in front of the Once Again and dismounted. There wasn’t many people around to say anything--most everybody was inside, and all you could see of them was a shadow of movement behind a window there, the flutter of a curtain there.
Only a few men sat in chairs along the boardwalks under the porches, or leaned against the porchposts, and they just sort of stared around, looking at Buck for a second and then looking off again if he turned toward them.
I was standing near to where Buck hitched up. He swaggered up the steps of the saloon, his right hand poised, his bulging eyes full of hell.
“You tell him?” he asked.
I nodded. “He’ll look you up, like you said.”
Buck laughed shortly. “I’ll be waiting. I don’t like that lanky bastard. I reckon I got some scores to settle with him.” He looked at me, and his face twisted into what he thought was a tough snarl. Funny--you could see he really wasn’t tough down inside. There wasn’t any hard core of confidence and strength. His toughness was in his holster, and all the rest of him was acting to match up to it.
“You know,” he said, “I don’t like you either, Irish. Maybe I oughta kill you. Hell, why not?”
Now, the only reason I’d stayed out of doors that afternoon was I figured Buck had already had one chance to kill me and hadn’t done it, so I must be safe. That’s what I figured--he had nothing against me, so I was safe. And I had an idea that maybe, when the showdown came, I might be able to help out Ben Randolph somehow--if anything on God’s Earth could help him.
Now, though, I wished to hell I hadn’t stayed outside. I wished I was behind one of them windows, looking out at somebody else get told by Buck Tarrant that maybe he oughta kill him.
“But I won’t,” Buck said, grinning nastily. “Because you done me a favor. You run off and told the sheriff just like I told you--just like the goddam white-livered Irish sheepherder you are. Ain’t that so?”
I nodded, my jaw set so hard with anger that the flesh felt stretched.
He waited for me to move against him. When I didn’t, he laughed and swaggered to the door of the saloon. “Come on, Irish,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ll buy you a drink of the best.”
I followed him in, and he went over to the bar, walking heavy, and looked old Menner right in the eye and said, “Give me a bottle of the best stuff you got in the house.”
Menner looked at the kid he’d kicked out of his place a dozen times, and his face was white. He reached behind him and got a bottle and put it on the bar.
“Two glasses,” said Buck Tarrant.
Menner carefully put two glasses on the bar.
Menner polished two other glasses on his apron and set them down.
“You don’t want no money for this likker, do you, Menner?” Buck asked.
“You’d just take it home and spend it on that fat heifer of a wife you got, and on them two little halfwit brats, wouldn’t you?”
“Hell, they really ain’t worth the trouble, are they?”
Buck snickered and poured two shots and handed me one. He looked around the saloon and saw that it was almost empty--just Menner behind the bar, and a drunk asleep with his head on his arms at a table near the back, and a little gent in fancy town clothes fingering his drink at a table near the front window and not even looking at us.
“Where is everybody?” he asked Menner.
“Why, sir, I reckon they’re home, most of them,” Menner said. “It being a hot day and all--”
“Bet it’ll get hotter,” Buck said, hard.
“I guess they didn’t want to really feel the heat, huh?”
“Well, it’s going to get so hot, you old bastard, that everybody’ll feel it. You know that?”
“If you say so, sir.”
“It might even get hot for you. Right now even. What do you think of that, huh?”
“You thrun me outa here a couple times, remember?”
“Y-yes ... but I--”
“Look at this!” Buck said--and his gun was in his hand, and he didn’t seem to have moved at all, not an inch. I was looking right at him when he did it--his hand was on the bar, resting beside his shotglass, and then suddenly his gun was in it and pointing right at old Menner’s belly.
“You know,” Buck said, grinning at how Menner’s fear was crawling all over his face, “I can put a bullet right where I want to. Wanta see me do it?”