by Barry Wiley
Enjoy this never before published adventure short story.
Dodge City, Kansas
Monday, May 16, 1892
Friday is said to be an unlucky day, Kyame Piddington read. It is hangman’s day. Some star having special gravity struck with sporadic force yesterday and illuminated some of the social phases in the zodiac of Dodge City. There was a gambling sport who was chaired by a pugilistic concubine.
A gambler walking on Military Street was spittoned on the head by a show-case capper. Some blood.
Another event. Another con man with a lottery setup trapped with his hand in the wrong pocket. Last seen bleeding down Chestnut Street toward Ham Bell’s Livery.
As does another Friday. The legendary gunman, Tall Paul Mather, is rumored on his way to Dodge – to tell more tales – or to create a new one? Some young locals are loosening their holsters, those that still have them. The others, without holsters, are staying away from the Long Branch on 3rd Street, the scene of many Mather-like tales.
Kyame looked up from reading a Dodge City Globe Republican she had found on the train. “Papa, where are we going to perform? There seems to be something wrong going on everywhere. Even a famous gunman coming to town.”
Papa smiled. “We will be at Kelly’s Opera House at Chestnut and 3rd … hopefully for a full week before we move on to Wichita.
“Are there still gun-fights, Papa?” She had read and heard stories about Wild Bill Hickok, and others, as they had traveled throughout the west. How could brutal killers be celebrated like, like opera stars?
“There are many memories of gunfights on Front Street in Dodge City, but all of the buildings of the infamous Front Street burned down about 1885. Apparently all that history has been replaced with just dull modern stores.
“The wild Dodge City died away like a forgotten song when the railroads expanded down into Texas … maybe eight or ten years ago. That stopped all the cattle drives to Kansas, stopped all the gun fights … and the legends.
“But things still seem to happen … nothing for us to worry about.” John Piddington looked out the window as the train slowed. There was a small group of three well-dressed men and one woman on the station platform, scanning the windows. One suddenly pointed. The group moved toward the front of the train as it slowed to a stop.
Their luggage stowed, Papa began digging for dirt, as he called getting local information for their act, as Kyame turned to walk about Dodge City, stopping first to talk with the boy moving luggage into their hotel. She always talked with those who could see, but were unseen.
“Goin’ to be really interesting for the next few days with Tall Paul in town. Seems some local gunman challenged him.” The boy, Jack, was grinning, his eyes consuming her, a situation that Kyame had endured everywhere they went as she had grown. Only a theatre girl, some woman would sneer, as the men and boys stared at her. “And you Piddingtons, too, with your mind-reading. Got my tickets already for the shows tomorrow.
“You ever read one of these, Miss?” Jack pulled a dime novel from his hip-pocket. Tall Paul and the Psychic. Novel #11, was in gaudy vivid blue, red and yellow with Tall Paul on the cover, one hand tearing a crystal ball from the hands a demonic dark faced fortune teller wearing a turban, while holding a smoking six-shooter in the other. “I’ve read every one of the Tall Paul novels. My Ma doesn’t like any of the dime novels. Says they’re all of the devil, but …” He shrugged as manfully as his thin frame would allow. “You can have it, Miss. I’m done.”
Kyame thanked him for the novel, shoved it down into a pocket in her skirt and resumed her walk. Jack had provided her with some very interesting observations on some of the leading businessmen of the now civilized and dull Dodge City. Without cows, Jack had said, there was just no action. A crowd was gathering down near City Hall, so Kyame decided to join them to see if she could match faces with the names that Jack had mentioned.
He was very tall, this Tall Paul Mather. Kyame had never seen anyone as tall. He towered over the crowd, his auburn hair long almost to his shoulders, with a closely trimmed mustache of the same color. Well dressed in a tailored dark brown suit, with a suede leather vest and black wide-brimmed hat — and a big silver revolver, butt-forward at his left hip. Butt forward — Kyame had seen a couple of men wearing two guns butt forward, but not one. Seemed an awkward way to wear a gun — if you are going to wear one.
Kyame stood quietly, listening. In overhearing others discuss the prominent people up on the steps of the City Hall, she had connected three of Jack’s names. She started working through the crowd to get closer to the speaker whose voice was a pleasant resonant tenor. As she maneuvered about the people, Kyame picked up the fourth of Jack’s names. They were R. J. Hardesty, Nathaniel B. Caller, Michael Klaine and Victoria Garson, who were the Dodge City Company, whatever that meant.
With little apparent motion, the big gun suddenly appeared in Tall Paul’s right hand. The crowd gasped — as did Kyame. It just appeared, as from thin air! An aged killer who years back had barely escaped the rope in Ogallala, Nebraska, had assured her that a fast draw will get you a reputation, but a slower accurate shot will always get you another day to live.
“This pistol was placed in my hands by Wild Bill Hickok when I was eleven years old. It was Wild Bill who steadied my hand when I began shooting.” Tall Paul laughed. “Bill also had some sharp comments to make when I seemed to shoot down everything but the target.” The crowd laughed along with him. “For those who never had the chance to see Wild Bill, he was big, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. Mostly he was sociable, easy to talk to, even at poker table” — Paul raised one finger — “in between hands that is.” The crowd laughter was soft as if engaged in a personal conversation. “But, it was his blue-gray eyes that could change everything in an instant. They could go from frank and friendly to hypnotic and piercing in an instant, a look that just grabbed you.” Mather’s voice grew hard, snapping the last words.
To Kyame, Tall Paul Mather seemed more performer than gunman. She had met some real killers in Colorado, who weren’t celebrated like opera singers with no dime-novels glorifying their killings, but with ample blood on their hands. One or two had been friendly when sober. They told her tales which had been fascinating — but the tales would change depending on the number of shot glasses of raw whiskey the teller had consumed. But when they took a gun in their hand, there was no doubt they had used it more than once.
Papa had explained to her about Western gunmen and their sometime legends. Well, true or not, the stories were fun to hear — except when the teller had had too much whiskey and began to stagger about the hotel lobby with his gun cocked and loaded. She recalled Papa pulling her out the door of a hotel in Oklahoma just as two shots went off.
The gun seemed so big. When Mather paused, Kyame said, “Mr. Mather.” When Tall Paul turned toward her, she said, “Your gun is so big, it would seem to be awkward to use in large groups. Do you also carry small guns?”
Mather looked down at her, his dark blue eyes held her for a moment. “A very good question.” A derringer suddenly appeared in his left hand. “You are quite right, there are times that only a small pistol would be effective … Miss?”
“I am Kyame Piddington, sir,” she said. There was a small murmuring in the crowd.
Mather tipped his black hat to her. “And sometimes, Miss Piddington, situations are better settled without a gun.”
“Hey, Mather!” a man shouted, waving a blue dime novel. “This latest book tells how you took down a thieving fortune teller! You going to take down those mind-readers, The Impossible Piddingtons? They’re on the same bill at the Opera House you are.”
Kyame went cold inside, but Mather smiled.
“No, the Piddingtons are honest people.” He turned back to Kyame, tipped his hat again to her, and resumed his stories about Wild Bill.
His voice faded as Kyame walked on down Front Street. Papa had pointed out a restaurant, Molly’s. “Maybe good, Daughter. At least not hotel food.” They had laughed and agreed to meet in an hour.
The backstage at the Opera House was dark except for kerosene lamps in its two dressing rooms. A steady din of scrapping chairs and loud voices penetrated the wooden walls. The wood felt so dry that it seemed one lit sulphur match could set the whole place off. Kyame noted the stage door about eight or nine feet from their dressing room. She learned that Papa had also noted the distance. The only other escape route from a possible fire was out the front with everyone else — not a good situation. Orlow Thurston, the bow-legged stage manager, agreed that changes were needed, and would be completed next month. “For now, it is what it is, Mr. Piddington.”
Papa had been at Tall Paul’s shooting exhibition at an open lot on Water Street near the Arkansas River, while Kyame had returned to their room. He had been impressed with the speed of Mather’s cross-body draw and accuracy. In the twenty or so shots he had made from various body positions, including one with his back turned, Tall Paul had missed the bull’s eye only once. “That last shot,” Mather had declared over the noise of the crowd, “in a real gun fight, could have been my last, for good. Only an inch or two are between a good dinner and a deep grave.”
“It was a very good professional performance, Daughter, well-staged and well-practiced,” Papa said upon returning to their room. “But … I overheard two men saying something about a challenge during the show tonight, to see how real the legendary Tall Paul really was. I don’t like that. Bullets flying around are not entertainment.”
The week’s program would open with a music act of a local band with a singer, then the Piddingtons, and close with Tall Paul. The board and two saw-horses on which she would sit for their performance were just off stage. Papa’s dirt and her identification of the Dodge City Company should complement whatever action that Papa could secure from the audience as he walked, seemingly at random, around the audience, but always staying within the radius where she could see his shoes from under her blindfold.
Papa looked over at the knock on their partly open door. The door pushed open.
“Just wanted to say hello, Mr. Piddington, seeing as we are neighbors,” smiled Tall Paul Mather. He removed his hat looking at Kyame dressed in one of her performing gowns of pink and gold. “Miss Piddington. I do appreciate your question this afternoon. It opened the opportunity for a couple of my favorite stories.”
“Please join us, Mr. Mather. We are finished with our preparation. We are both looking forward to watching your presentation.” John Piddington pulled a chair away from the wall.
“As I am looking forward to yours, Mr. Piddington. I am just Paul to my friends and fellow performers,” he smiled.
“I am Kyame, Paul. Papa learned something you should know.”
“Yes, I overheard two men at your exhibition this afternoon, one with a red cravat and black suit, the other with a white vest, talk about some kind of challenge to you at tonight’s show. Neither were wearing a holstered pistol, but one could, the white vest, have a gun under his left arm.” Papa smiled. “I was very impressed with your shooting, Paul. Wild Bill must have done some serious work with you. Both Kyame and I would enjoy hearing more about your experiences with Bill.”
Paul was quiet for a moment, then nodded. “Thank you, John … and Kyame. I encounter occasional challenges, but they rarely actually happen. It’s part of what I have to expect, given what I present.” He frowned. “Those two sound like Dodge Company people.”
“You aren’t a killer, Paul,” said Kyame. “Your eyes betray that. You are a performer with a dangerous act, like a tight-rope walker. I have felt the eyes of killers. Yours are too forgiving. Papa and I have to read eyes as well as minds,” she smiled.
Mather bowed his head to her. “You read me very well and you are right. I have never killed anyone, regardless of what my brother’s dime novels say. I never wanted the drudgery of the cowboy life, or the boredom of working in someone’s office or shop. I wanted some, ah, careful adventure, a bit of fame, and a boxful of money.”
Kyame laughed. “Only a boxful?”
Paul grinned. “At the beginning, only a boxful … my objectives have changed over the past couple of years. I’ve never been in a school, so had to learn on my own. Telling about my meeting with Wild Bill as a child always seemed to strike a chord with listeners, so I built an act around it, learned to handle guns, and with the help of my brother, who is a reporter back East, the legendary Tall Paul was born. But how long I can play the gun-fighter and survive … I don’t know. Like your tight-wire act, Kyame, I don’t know when I will fall. But even if all the real gunfighters are gone, there still seems to be ….”
Thurston looked around the door. “Mather, you have two visitors from the Dodge City Company … now.”
Mather nodded. He looked back at the door. “How about dinner, on me, after tonight’s show?” He grinned when the Piddingtons nodded.
Within a few minutes loud voices, one a woman’s, came through their wall.
“Papa, they want Paul to face a real gunman! What can we do?”
Papa’s smile was small as he leaned back in his chair. Then the smile began to widen. He got up, pushed the door closed, then turned to Kyame. “I have an idea.”
Several minutes into their act, Kyame had been reading Papa’s feet while adding the coloring she always referred to as her ‘smokey acting’. The audience had become alive after the boring music act that opened the evening. They began to respond well almost immediately to her smokey acting. She heard a chair near the stage scrap across the floor.
“Hey you, Piddingtons! You are fakes … just fakes.” The man had been drinking, Kyame was certain about that. But in her now two year career, she had handled challenges and insults which didn’t bother her as they once had.
“Sir,” said John Piddington. “I see you carry a gun in a shoulder holster. With my back to the stage, show me the serial number of the gun, something neither my daughter nor I could have ever seen before. I will send those digits telepathically to my daughter. If Kyame fails to get the serial number in correct order, I will forfeit a hundred dollars to you … tonight.” Papa let the sudden murmuring of the audience subside. “Of course, if Kyame is correct, then you hand me fifty dollars tonight.”
The audience roared its approval. Kyame heard a number of chairs scrapping as many in the audience stood to watch more closely.
The challenger, Papa had signed white, must be the one in the white vest with the shoulder holster. “Hold the gun up so all can see it … and will you, sir, act as witness for the audience as to the number and the correctness of Kyame’s thoughts.”
When the challenger hesitated, he was immediately attacked. “Hey, Hardesty, the Piddingtons accepted your call, you too yellow to go through with it?”
A moment of silence, then, “All right, all right. Here’s my gun. Look it over, Piddington, with your back to the stage.”
Kyame could see the feet of people moving back so that everyone could watch. 6-3-2 Papa quickly signed. Digits were the easiest information to send. A moment, then, 3-1-1, then his sign for stop. Then three more signs.
The audience was silent.
A strange voice said, “I have the gun in my hand, Miss Piddington. Mr. Hardesty is beside me. Your father may not say anything and must continue to keep his back to you. Tell everyone …what is the serial number?”
Her eyes closed, in case anyone tried to look up under her blindfold, Kyame spread her fingers wide, slowly reaching out toward Papa. “I see a small gun, Papa, a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber … a shiny gun, nickel-plated, with five bullets.” There was a gasp from many standing near the stage and some noises from further back. “The number, which is stamped on the frame on the right side is 6…3…2” She paused, reaching out, closing her hands as if gathering something. “3…1…1. There is nothing more. Am I right? 6-3-2-3-1-1.”
The strange voice shouted. “The Piddingtons got it right! You owe them fifty bucks, Hardesty!”
Even with the audience cheering, the chairs scrapping, Kyame could hear someone cursing. Then Papa shoes came back into view. The sign for close.
Kyame pushed off the board, standing, she moved her blindfold. “Papa, so tired. Can’t go further.” She wiped her hand across her eyes as he returned to the stage. They bowed to the cheering and applause, with Papa followed Kyame off the stage.
“Damn fine, Piddingtons,” whispered Tall Paul as they passed in the wings. “You got me buffaloed like everyone else.”
John Piddington turned, in a soft voice. “I jammed his trigger pull so that the firing pin cannot hit a cartridge, if he challenges you. He was the one at your pistol demonstration.”
Kyame heard a muffled thanks as Paul moved by them to the stage.
Kyame changed into walking clothes, the pink and gold very carefully folded into a trunk as the roars and applause of the audience carried through the walls.
“Let’s watch in the wings, Kyame,” said Papa.
Paul stood in the center of the stage near the kerosene stage lights. A man in a white vest was taunting him, shaking his fist at him. “I challenge you to draw against me, Mather. Draw against a real gun with real bullets handled by a man who doesn’t miss.” The audience scrambled rapidly away to stand against the theater walls, knocking over chairs in their run to safety.
Paul raised his hand. “If this is to be real, then let me check my load, and Mr. Hardesty, check yours.” He spun the cylinder, nodded, snapped the cylinder back and replaced the big silver gun butt-forward in his holster.
Hardesty sneered. “I never challenge before I know my gun is ready to kill,” he shouted.
Paul nodded. He glimpsed the Piddingtons in the wings. His cocked smile was quick. He said softly that could be heard across the now silent audience. “Hardesty, draw whenever your nerve can handle it.”
“Damn you!” The .38 appeared suddenly in his hand, as Paul drew and fired a shot first to the right of his challenger, then another shot to the left, as Hardesty kept jerking the trigger but nothing happened. In an instant, Paul re-holstered as Hardesty continued to jerk at the trigger, when his pistol suddenly fired, but not at Paul.
Twisting in his frustrations with his pistol, the bullet hit a man standing against the wall. His scream ignited the audience.
Paul drew again, fired. Hardesty shrieked with painful surprise, his gun hitting the floor as he fell to his knees grabbing at his wrist, blood oozing between his fingers. Two men rushed forward closely followed by the Dodge marshal shouting, “Mather, get off that stage! Show’s over! “
“Like I suggested in our dressing room, as I walked the audience to send to Kyame, I looked for anyone with a gun,” said John Piddington. “It appeared Hardesty was the only one. When I had his gun to see the serial number, I slipped a thin steel shim between the hammer and cartridge, so the firing-pin couldn’t strike. It would hold for maybe two or three trigger -pulls which would give you the time to get the drop on him, or, as you did, to shoot around him. If there had been more than one with a pistol, well” — Piddington shrugged — “I would have made a choice, and hoped for the best.”
Tall Paul Mather shook his head. The crowd behind them at Molly’s was small, with everyone glancing over at the gun fighter and the mind readers, then quickly looking away. He grinned. “The Dodge Company needed something, some event to pull more people into town. Some businesses were fading leaving the Company holding the bag for the mortgages and taxes. They told me they wanted blood tonight, mine being preferred. They were paying me gold for a gun-fight, not for a performance.” He took a deep breath. “Something like this is going to happen again, somewhere. I need out” — he grinned — “to write my autobiography. I want to write the ending … not someone else.”
“So long as you have your big silver gun, Paul,” said Kyame, “someone will want to get a quick reputation by killing you. Why not announce your retirement and auction off your gun with the money going to the widows of local lawmen wherever you are? That might end the dime novels; but you would be able to write the ending.”
Laughing, Paul raised his glass. “You’ve found the key, Kyame. You will receive the first signed copy of my autobiography.”
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