Newt Parsons threw back his shot, grimacing as the whiskey burned its way to his empty stomach. God, it felt like molten lava. Holding out the glass, he raised an inquisitive brow to Bill the bartender.
* * *
"How 'bout another? Jus' one more. On second thought, make it a beer."
"I dunno, Newt. Your tab's gettin' mighty high."
"I know, I know. An' I'm feelin' real bad about that. But I think I might have landed a job."
"Oh yeah? Where 'bouts?"
"At the livery. Ol' Joe needs someone to muck the stalls, haul in hay, and the likes of that. He's willin' to pay two bits for an eight hour day."
"It's been a long time since you've had any gainful employment," said Bill, placing a beer in front of Newt.
"This trick knee doesn't exactly make me a candidate for jobs."
Bill chuckled. "That ol' knee only tricks when you want it to."
"Now that's an unfair statement if I ever heard one." Newt guzzled from the beer, froth lining his pale lips. "Can you see your way to one of those pickled eggs?"
Sighing, Bill removed the lid of a large jar, fished out an egg with his fingers and held it up in front of Newt. "Now don't go fartin' up the place. "Will there be anything else, Your Royal Highness?"
Newt winked. "Maybe I'll have a steak an' potato supper, with a big piece of apple pie."
"Don't hold your breath."
Just then, the batwing doors creaked open. Looking over his shoulder, Newt spotted a tall, lanky man with a sweeping handlebar moustache. He was wearing a black Stetson and a knee-length Prince Albert coat, along with a brocade vest with a gold watch chain. Newt noticed the pearl-handled Colt right off, nestled in a finely-tooled holster. The stranger's boots thudded on the rough pine floor as he strode up to the bar, ordering a whiskey with a beer chaser.
Everything about the man struck a gong of alarm in Newt's head. The self-assured swagger; the way those dark eyes never blinked as they constantly checked out the room in the fly-specked mirror over the bar. How the left hand did all the work, while the right never strayed more than an inch from the Colt. He was a shootist, for sure. He just had to be. There was no doubt about it.
The hum of conversation had died to a few hushed voices. All eyes in the room were glued on the tall man.
Bill appeared nervous, sweat beading on his forehead. "Pardon me for askin', but you're Lucas Payne, ain't'cha?"
"What if I am?"
"No harm meant. I . . . I was jus' askin'."
"If I'm not mistaken, this whiskey an' beer are on the house."
Bill gave an uneasy laugh. "Between you an' Newt, you're gonna drive me out of business."
The dark eyes narrowed.
"Sure 'nough. They're on the house. No problem, at all."
"An' my next round as well."
"Yes, sir. It would be my pleasure."
Newt shook his head, offering a chuckle.
In a heartbeat, Payne's eyes darted from the bartender to Newt. He turned slightly, the leather of his holster giving a small creak. "Are you laughing at me, mister?"
"He wasn't laughin' at you," said Bill, waving off the question. "He chuckles to himself all the time."
"I wasn't asking you. I was asking him."
A nervous tic began to play at the corner of Newt's mouth; a suddenly very dry mouth. "No, no. I . . . uh . . . I was jus' thinkin' of something funny. It . . . it had nothing to do with you."
"I think it had everything to do with me."
Payne's stare became intense, piercing Newt's heart like a cold knife. "Well, I think it did." The gunfighter drained his shot glass in one gulp, thudding it on the bar. "If you fessed up to it, like a man, I might have let it slide. Not now." A sip of beer. "So, I want you to meet me on the street, noon on the nose, tomorrow. If you're not there, I swear, I'll find you, wherever you are, an' shoot you dead on the spot."
"High noon? Tomorrow? C'mon, I'm jus' a poor cuss, tryin' to get from one end of my miserable life to the other. I never hurt anyone. Why would you want to soil your reputation with the likes of me?"
"You own a gun?"
Newt started to gnaw at his lower lip. If all eyes in the room weren't on him, he might have resorted to groveling.
"I asked if you own a gun."
"A gun? Uh . . . yeah. But I haven't shot the darn thing in over two years. And, then, it was at a bunch of rusty ol' cans." A nervous chuckle. "I missed a lot more than I hit."
"You might consider a little practice." Payne motioned for Bill to refill his shot glass. "Tomorrow, noon sharp, right outside this hole."
Newt stood glued to the floor, mouth flapping, trying to find the right words to wiggle out of his predicament, but the conversation appeared to be over. He looked to Bill for support, but the bartender could only shrug. Finally, he turned tail and hustled out of the saloon, his quivering legs feeling as though they might buckle out from under him.
Newt ended his thoughts of the day before and reluctantly swung out of bed. He'd spent a restless night, tossing and turning, his pillow soaked with a cold sweat. This was it—the last day of his worthless life. There was no place to hide, no place to run. He'd thought of saddling up and high-tailing it out of town, but he didn't own a horse and he couldn't afford to rent one. And the sheriff, what a joke—he was totally spineless. Hell, the fool probably skedaddled the moment he heard that Lucas Payne was in town. A knock sounded at the door, causing Newt's heart to jump, and he shuffled over to answer it, wearing only his long johns.
* * *
Tom Hastings, the rooming house owner, was peering at him from over the top of his spectacles. "Morning, Newt."
"My last one."
Hastings cleared his throat, looking pained. "That's why I'm here to talk to you. Do you think you can come up with your back rent before . . . before . . . ?"
"Before I go an' get myself killed?"
"Uh . . . yeah. I guess that's what I was trying to get at."
"I don't have a penny to my name. But you can have everything that I own. That should square things."
Hastings craned his neck, looking into the room. "What, exactly, do you own?"
"Some clothes. But they're pretty worn. A decent pocket watch, which my poor departed mother gave to me on my sixteenth birthday. And my gun. You can jus' take it, along with my holster, when I'm sprawled dead in the street."
Satisfied, Hastings nodded his head. "That sounds fair enough." As the man was starting away, he turned. "I don't know whether you know this, but Lucas Payne is reputed to be the fastest gun in the west. The north, south and east, too, for that matter. Faster than Wyatt Earp. Quicker than Johnny Ringo. More lightening than Wild Bill Hickok had been. I jus' thought you ought to know."
"Thanks for the wonderful news. You can have these long johns, too, if you want."
Hastings appraised the holey garment. "Thanks. It's nothing that a needle and thread can't fix up."
Newt stayed in his room for the morning, pacing back and forth, yearning for a drink, occasionally parting the yellowed curtains to examine the street below. He didn't even have the money for a last breakfast. The thought of dying on an empty stomach brought on a bout of near hysterical laughter. Deciding to dress up for his death, he donned a black suit he'd had for years, its sleeves and trouser legs a bit too short. At a little after eleven, he left the room, wearing his old gun and holster. His scuffed boots had barely touched the boardwalk when Mordecai Adams, the town undertaker, rushed up to him, his top hat askew and his watery eyes aglitter with excitement.
"Can you hold up for a few moments, Newt?"
"Right now, every second counts."
Adams whipped a tape measure from his pocket and quickly strung it from the top of Newt's head to the toes of his boots. Next, he measured him from hip to hip.
"Sorry, Newt. I'm jus' gettin' your measurements for a pine box. I might even be able to swing mahogany."
"I don't have the money for either a coffin or a funeral. You can jus' plant me in the ol' potter's field."
"Don't you worry about that, none. Everyone in town is pitchin' in for a right nice sendoff. There might even be enough to buy you a new burial suit." Adams snatched off his top hat and smiled. "I kicked in a sawbuck, myself."
"Much obliged." Newt felt the wetness of tears. "That's very touching."
"You bet. They say that Lucas Payne has twelve notches on his pistol grip."
"I guess I'll be his lucky thirteenth."
"He killed Tom Dahlgren in Tucson jus' last week. And Dahlgren was faster than greased lightning. I don't envy you, Newt. Not for a second."
"No one ever envied me, Mordecai."
With that, Newt headed for Morgan's Saloon, hoping that everyone's generosity would extend to a few free drinks. The drunker he was, the easier it would be. He might even go down, laughing at the top of his lungs. Upon entering Morgan's, he immediately noticed Lucas Payne in the far corner of the room, sitting with his back to the wall, sipping a beer and playing solitaire. He had his coat off and Newt noted that he was wearing an immaculate white shirt with a black string tie and sleeve garters. The gunfighter's moustache was so heavily waxed that it looked as though it might shatter at the touch.
Bill looked sadly at Newt. "How you holdin' up?"
"It looks like it might rain out there."
The free whiskies came one after the other, everyone wanting to buy Newt a last drink, and it wasn't long before he was feeling woozy-headed and a bit indifferent to his fate. Hell, my life ain't worth a hill of beans, anyway. If he's feelin' merciful, ol' Saint Pete might even wave me past the Pearly Gates. He hadn't been a bad person, really. Just a very foolish and unlucky one.
At a little before noon, Lucas Payne consulted his gold pocket watch then stood, flexing his arms and cracking his knuckles. Slipping on his coat, he strode confidently across the room, giving Newt a nod, and pushed his way through the batwing doors.
"Well, Newt," said Bill, extending a hand. "It's been an honor knowin' you."
"You can cut the horse manure, Bill."
"Well, maybe not quite an honor, but it's been good. Just remember; try to keep your back to the sun."
"The sun's not out."
Everyone in the saloon stood and filed past Newt, either pumping his hand, wishing him luck, or patting him consolingly on the shoulder. Funny, no one ever paid him any particular attention to him, before. As Virgil Simms, a local rancher, approached, Newt leaned in close, lowering his voice to a near whisper.
"Hey, Virge. Can you spare a bullet? I jus' remembered that my gun is empty and I don't have any."
"Sure thing." The rancher plucked a cartridge from his holster belt and handed it over. "I can give you the full six if you want."
"Naw. Jus' the one."
Feeding the bullet into the chamber of his Colt, Newt reholstered the weapon, tipped the brim of his hat to those watching and marched out to the street. To his surprise, it looked as though everyone from miles around had gathered, lining both boardwalks for as far as he could see. Men, women, even little kids, and they were all staring in his direction. Where the hell did they all come from? Did they jus' drop out of the sky? Are they all comin' to my funeral? There was silence, with only the yipping of an excited dog. The day was overcast, the sun hiding behind a darkened cloud. How appropriate.
Lucas Payne was maybe twenty yards off, pacing back and forth, his ego boosted by the size of the crowd, his hand clenching and unclenching near his Colt.
Newt hesitated, taking it all in. Payne could be blindfolded and the outcome would be the same. Why does he even want to bother with me? Hell, I'm just a fly in a town of honey bees. The dozens of whiskies had filled Newt with bravado and he found himself strutting to the center of the street. A bead of sweat stung his eye and he blinked it away.
Payne grinned beneath his fiercely-curled moustache. "Since you're such a sorry case, you can go for your gun first."
"No, you go first. Ugly before beauty."
A chorus of laughter erupted along the boardwalks. The sound felt good to Newt. In the last minute of his life, he'd managed to get something right.
"You'd better take this seriously, ass-wipe."
"Yup. As serious as a raging case of hemorrhoids."
Another round of laughter.
The two men faced one another, the seconds ticking away. Newt knew that for ego's sake Payne wanted him to make the first move, but it wasn't going to happen. After fifteen more seconds, Newt started a comical Irish jig, whooping and hollering away, drawing even greater laughter from the scores of spectators. Ah, the wonderful effects of whiskey.
Finally, with his patience exhausted, Payne went for his Colt. And lo-and-behold, in that split second, if the sun didn't burst free, striking the gunfighter directly in the eyes and throwing off his aim. The bullet buzzed past Newt; so closely that he felt its passage rustle his sleeve.
Shocked, Newt stumbled back as he fumbled out his gun, very nearly losing his balance, his finger clumsily yanking the trigger. The shot went completely wild, ricocheting off a wash tub hanging in front of Kramer's Dry Goods and cutting a perfect path to strike Lucas Payne in the left temple.
"An act of God if I ever did see one," more than one witness would later speculate. The gunslinger took a wobbly step, arm falling, his finger reflexively firing a shot into the ground. Then his eyes rolled and he fell flat on his face, sending up a small cloud of yellow dust.
An uproarious cheer went up from the crowd and before Newt knew it he was surrounded by a swarm of people, slapping him across the back and vying for the privilege of shaking his hand. Mordecai Adams hustled over to Payne's body, taking the shootist's measurements and rifling through his pockets for the cost of a funeral.
"Dang, Newt, I thought I'd seen everything," laughed Virgil Simms. "And to think that it was my bullet that nailed him. C'mon, I'm gonna treat you to a right-fittin' breakfast. Eggs, bacon, biscuits, flapjacks, anything you want."
Strangely enough, the sun had quickly ducked behind another cloud.
"You can forget about your tab, Newt," piped up Bill. When you're finished chowin' down, the next dozen whiskies are on me. You're gonna be famous, boy. The news about what happened here will spread like wildfire."
"Hey, Newt! You come on by the store later and I'll fix you up with some right fine duds. You gotta be lookin' your best."
And the invitations kept flying, boggling Newt's brain. He didn't want to be famous, he didn't deserve it, it had all been a quirk of luck, but he had to admit that he was enjoying all of the attention.
"Newton Parsons," called the Widow Drummond. "I want you to stop by the first chance you get. I've been terrible lonely since my Henry passed away and it would warm my heart to cook you a real nice meal."
The dog was running in circles around Newt, yipping again and nipping at his heels. Little kids, both boys and girls, were staring at him, wide-eyed, reaching out and touching his holster as if he was some kind of national hero.
"When you have the chance, come on over to my gun shop, Newt. I have a beautiful Peacemaker with fancy scroll work and ivory grips. It's yours for free. All you have to do is mention my business in your interviews."
Yet another cry went up. "I want to take some pictures of you, Newt, when you're all decked out in your new outfit an' gun. You jus' stop on by my photo shop. No appointment necessary."
A short, gaunt-featured man, clad in a white canvas duster, gun slung low, was idling on the boardwalk, casually rolling a cigarette and smirking at the hullabaloo. Lucas Payne was history. Who would have ever thought it possible? Now, he had another shootist to deal with, if that's what you could call the bumbling idiot.
He'd have to call him out, maybe today, maybe tomorrow; the pecking order demanded it. The man chuckled at the absurdity of it all. Striking a sulfur match to light his smoke, he headed for Morgan's Saloon, kicking the pesky dog out of his way.