"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?"
His gun crashed, and flame leaped across the bar, and the mirror behind the bar had a spiderweb of cracks radiating from a round black hole.
Menner stood there, blood leaking down his neck from a split earlobe.
Buck's gun went off again, and the other earlobe was a red tatter.
And Buck's gun was back in its holster with the same speed it had come out--I just couldn't see his hand move.
"That's enough for now," he told Menner. "This is right good likker, and I guess I got to have somebody around to push it across the bar for me, and you're as good as anybody to do jackass jobs like that."
He didn't ever look at Menner again. The old man leaned back against the shelf behind the bar, trembling, two trickles of red running down his neck and staining his shirt collar--I could see he wanted to touch the places where he'd been shot, to see how bad they were or just to rub at the pain, but he was afraid to raise a hand. He just stood there, looking sick.
Buck was staring at the little man in town clothes, over by the window. The little man had reared back at the shots, and now he was sitting up in his chair, his eyes straight on Buck. The table in front of him was wet where he'd spilled his drink when he'd jumped.