The Last Shootist
Read the first pages of Miles Swarthout's new Western novel,
The Last Shootist,
a sequel to his late father Glendon's classic Western novel,
The Shootist, which became in 1976, John Wayne's final film.
“The young lions roar after their prey,
and seek their meat from God.”
(the final scene from Glendon Swarthout’s Western novel,
Gillom Rogers inched through the doors of the Constantinople. Eyes watering from the smoke, he gaped at Jay Cobb and Serrano and Koopmann, and at Jack Pulford, seated against the wall.
Skirting the three bodies near the bar, avoiding the blood and brains as best he could, he looked over the bar, then scuffled in wonder through the carnage of glass behind it. A dollar bill stopped him. He put it in his pants pocket which held the other money. A black-handled Remington lay in the walkway. He picked it up and holding his breath approached the prone man, who seemed small to him now, even puny.
He saw the torn coat and the blood on it and the right arm extended stiffly, gun aimed. He moved slowly to Books’ side, bending.
“It’s me, Gillom,” he said.
He got down on his knees. Books was incapable of speech. His chin was clamped upon his left wrist. Gillom did not care to look into the face, but the eyes arrested him. They considered. They considered not only the archway, as though something implacable waited on the other side, but something transcendent beyond that as well, far beyond.
“Mister Books, it’s me, Gillom.”
The mouth opened. Nothing inaudible issued from it, but the lips formed two words: “kill” and “me.”
Gillom chewed his lips.
“Sure thing,” he said, then stood, moved behind the man, straddled him, and put the muzzle of the revolver he had picked up to the back of the head. He turned his own head away; shut his eyes tight, gritted his teeth -- pulled the trigger.
The hammer clicked.
“Shit,” he groaned.
He despaired, aware on the rim of his consciousness of the smoke and the reek of the air and the solemnity of the fans. He got down on his knees again beside the prone man and worked at the fingers clenching the pearl handle of the second Remington, prying them free until he possessed that weapon, too.
He stood again, straddled the prone man, and put the muzzle of the revolver to the back of John Bernard Books’s head a second time, into the hair. He turned his own head away; shut his eyes tight; gritted his teeth; and pulled the trigger.
He walked out of the Constantinople into chaste air. A crowd of men and boys had gathered across the street. Waiting for a buggy to pass, then a buckboard, he crossed the street to the crowd.
“What happened in there?” At least six asked.
“They’re all dead,” said Gillom.
“J.B. Books. Jay Cobb. Jack Pulford. A Mex name of Serrano, a rustler. And some guy I don’t know who. A big guy. He killed ‘em all.”
Someone had counted. “Five! Whooeee!”
“Jesus Christ, boys, he killed every hard case around!” someone exulted. “Jesus, boys, we fin’ly got us a clean town!”
“Oughta put up a statue of the murderin’ bastard!” someone else enthused.
“These are his guns.” Gillom held them up for all to covet.
“He gave ‘em to me before he died.”
“Look at that!”
“Short barrel, no sight, specials by God -- hey, kid, wanna sell ‘em?”
“Hell, no,” said Gillom. He grinned and waved at the Constantinople. “O.K., folks, step right over and see the show! Drinks on the house!”
As the crowd tided across the street, Gillom Rogers strode away down it, swinging a gun in each hand. An alchemy of false spring sunlight turned the nickel of the Remingtons to silver. He strode head up, shoulders back, taller to himself, having sensations he had never known before. One gun was still warm in his hand, the bite of the smoke was in his nose and the taste of death on his tongue. His heart was high in his gullet, the danger past -- and now the sweat, suddenly, and the nothingness, and the sweet clean feel of being born.
One thing he knew for a fact: he had to get these pistols hidden quick or his mother might kill him, too. They were much too valuable to flash around town. Sweet bearded Jesus! He now possessed J. B. Books’ matched Remingtons!
Gillom Rogers slowed his walk, wondering where he would get a double-holster rig to house these legendary nickel-plated .44s. Or should he have a silk vest made like Books’, with leather holster pockets sewn on either side of the chest, angled forty-five degrees inward for a cross-handed draw? Too late to get J. B.’s own now. That special weapons vest was all shot up and bloody on his corpse. Books was too heavy to clothe Gillom’s skinny frame anyway.
If I can just learn to handle these pistols as well as Mister Books did, quick draw, spinning tricks, a sharpshooter, I can become as famous a shootist as that old man was! With a little gambler’s luck, if nobody fills me fulla lead, makes me look like a colander. Famous and feared.
“Hey, kid! Kid! Wait up!”
Gillom halted in El Paso Street and stepped back from the steel trolley tracks to turn and see who was hulloing. Shading his eyes against an afternoon sun, he squinted at the hullabaloo stirring around the Constantinople saloon, spectators shouting, hurrying in and out of the opened front doors. A spindle-shanked fellow in a striped suit and derby hat galloped out of the crowd and waved at Gillom.
“Dan Dobkins! Daily Herald!”
Gillom Rogers nodded as the young journalist caught his breath. “You interviewed Mr. Books at our house.”
“Well, almost. Before that cranky old bastard booted me out.” Dobkins pointed at one of the shiny revolvers Gillom held. “His pistol?”
Gillom straightened, displaying a nickel-plated Remington in either hand.
“J. B. Books himself gave ‘em to me the moment before he died.”
Dobkins couldn’t resist running an index finger along the five-and-a-half inch, sightless barrel of the made-to-order Remington.
“You stole ‘em off a dead man.”
“I did not! It was our deal. If I told Cobb, Pulford, and Serrano over in Juarez to meet Mr. Books in the Connie today at four, when the shooting was over, Mr. Books said I could have these specials.”
Dan Dobkins only had about ten years on this callow youth, but he surveyed the teenager with a cynical eye. “So you took ‘em off a dead man?”
Gillom reddened. “No! He asked me to finish him off. Hell, he was all shot up anyway, almost dead. So I pried this loaded pistol from his fingers and did what he asked.”
Dobkins’ mouth fell open. “You issued the coup de grâce?”
“Yup.” Gillom Rogers raised his narrow chin defiantly, risked twirling the revolver in his right hand by its finger guard, just once.
The star reporter of the El Paso Daily Herald noticed bystanders halting to overhear. He grabbed the teenager by the shoulder, turned him round and marched them both toward the swinging doors of the Pass of the North’s best-known saloon, the Gem.
“Let’s get a drink. I’ll make you famous, kid, but I need your whole story.”
Opened in the fall of 1885, the Gem Theatre was a full service establishment with a restaurant and saloon in front and its gaming rooms moved upstairs by order of a reformist town council. A stage at one end of the barroom hosted variety musical shows with singers and dancing girls, sometimes even dog fights and boxing matches, which were heavily bet.
“My name’s not kid. It’s Gillom Rogers.”
“Fine. But hide those guns, Gillom, or somebody will shoot you to steal ‘em.”
Gillom stuck the Remingtons carefully under the waistband of his woolen trousers, covered by his light wool coat. Dobkins steered him into one of the red leather wine booths in a back corner.
“Two beers, Jimmy! McGintys!” Pulling a small notebook and pencil from his coat pocket, the ace reporter got right down to business. “So at J. B. Books’ behest, you summoned Jay Cobb, Jack Pulford, and that Mex, what was his name?”
“Serrano. El Tuerto. Cross-Eye, they called him. He was one bad bandido from Juarez.”
“So why were all three of these gunslingers summoned to the Connie today?”
“’Cause they were all good with guns. Mister Books was dying of cancer and expected one of those gunmen would save him the trouble of doing himself in.”
“Yup. Doc Hostetler told him he didn’t have much time to live. That’s why my ma let him stay on in our bottom guest room even after all our other boarders fled, after those two jaspers tried to shoot him in bed earlier this week. He had nowhere else to go.”
Dobkins chewed his pencil. “Fits. I did hear a rumor Books was dying, but after what he did to me….” The journalist made a face at the sour memory of the great gunman booting him ignominiously in the ass off Mrs. Rogers’ front porch.
The rotund barkeep put one huge mug of warm beer in front of Mr. Dobkins, but gave the young customer the fisheye. “Kid’s too young to drink in here, Dan.”
The reporter shook his head. “Not today he isn’t, Jimmy. This is the young man who just killed John Bernard Books.”
The barkeep gave Gillom a long stare. “On the house then. For helpin’ rid El Paso of our last pistolero.” Jimmy left to go draw another beer. Dobkins slid his stein of ale across the table to young Rogers, who grinned as he sucked it down. The teenager found killing worked up a thirst.
Dan gave him a smile oily enough to grease a locomotive.
“Okay, Gillom, who shot who first?”
“Well, most of the blood had been spilled by the time I snuck in there. Books had shot ‘em all – Cobb, Pulford, that Mex, and some other joker I don’t even know. All the hard cases he invited to his funeral.”
Gillom gulped more beer as Jimmy approached with another huge mug, named after the McGinty Band, El Paso’s famous musical drinking society. The journalist’s eyes drifted to the ceiling.
“Invitation to a funeral…or, or, a gunfight. What a headline….Or the title of a book….”
Gillom nodded, remembering. “Yeah, the gunsmoke and pistol fire echoing off those tile floors, burned my nostrils and deadened my hearing. Heavy….”
Dobkins nodded, transported. “A vibrating mantle…of death. Like something out of Poe.”
Gillom slugged his beer. “Who?”
“Edgar Allen Poe. Dissipated Baltimore poet you might like.”
“Listen, Dan,” said Gillom. “It’s after five. I gotta get home for supper.”
The reporter snapped out of his wonderment. “Me, too. Gotta see if that photographer’s getting’ those death photos. Crucial with a headline. So Books actually asked you to shoot him?”
“He was bleedin’, wounded bad, dyin’ anyway. Whispered ‘kill…me.’ So I blessed him with a bullet.”
Dan Dobkins listened transfixed. “A bullet’s blessing….”
His chair scraped as Gillom got up, remembered his manners. “Thanks for the beer.”
Dobkins hastily rose, too. “Sure, kid, uh, Gillom. Gonna make you famous. Tomorrow’s paper.”
They shook hands a little awkwardly under the circumstances.
“Thanks, Dan. Maybe this’ll lead to a good job. Something exciting involving firearms is what I fancy.”
“Finish your schooling first. You’re a game young man, Gillom Rogers. More education, you’ll go far.”
“Already on my way, thanks just the same.” With a spring in his step, Gillom was off, checking the weighty guns in his waistband as he bounced through the Gem’s swinging front doors. Dan Dobkins smiled as he dropped four bits on the table, leaving an uncharacteristically decent tip. Headline story this hot might make him famous, too.
The McGinty Coronet Band, its brass blasting and drums rattling, marched up El Paso’s main street to its free Saturday night concert in the Gem. Dobkins elbowed his way through the marching throng to reach the bottleneck outside the Constantinople’s front doors.
“Make way for the press! Please! Daily Herald coming through!” A strong hand pushed back his chest. The imposing, red-necked man was one of the smaller Marshal’s muscles. Turning to catch Walter Thibido’s eye, the deputy got the nod to let the press in.
Dobkins stepped carefully into the saloon’s mess. He noted the bullet holes in the carved mahogany bar, the jagged glass teeth left in the wide, shattered mirror behind it. Amazingly only one light fixture, designed like a cluster of glass grapes, was broken. The burnt gunpowder filled his nostrils with an acrid scent of sulphur, like the devil’s vapor trail.
Moving around the big stranger’s body near the front door, Dobkins gave a kick to a short-haired mongrel licking brain slime off the green and white floor tiles next to the gaping hole in Jay Cobb’s head. The dog let out a yelp, but circled out of boot range to go lap more blood from the viscous pool around the other stranger’s torso.
Marshal Thibido mopped his brow with a blue silk handkerchief. “Books hasn’t any relatives I know of, so I’ll handle his personals until this shooting investigation’s finished. Where are his guns?”
The lawman was addressing Skelly, the photographer, who was propping Books’ upper body against the bar’s mahogany front, closing eyelids over vacant orbs, arranging the corpse in a position more suitable for infamy. The gunman’s skeletal features, emaciated by his prostate cancer, were ghastly grey to look at, but aside from wiping away blood splatters, there was nothing much Skelly could do to improve J.B. Books’ gaunt death mask. No time to get any face powder, makeup from his studio. Skelly had to tilt the gunfighter’s Stetson to cover up the hole on one side of his head. Luckily the bullet hadn’t exited through the face or he couldn’t shoot a saleable photograph.
“No weapons on him. No watch, no wallet, no money. He was robbed, Marshal.”
“Goddammit, he used those guns. Deputies! I want these shooters’ guns confiscated, especially Books’. Find ‘em! They’re valuable…evidence.”
Dan Dobkins curried favor. “Kid’s got those pistols, Marshal. Gillom Rogers took ‘em before finishing Books off, that shot to the head there.”
“You saw those Remingtons?”
Dan nodded. “Ten minutes ago, talked to Gillom. He’s gone home.”
Thibido blew relieved air. “Well, least we know where they are.”
Mr. Skelly positioned his equipment, angling the maplewood Conley eight-by-ten camera on its tripod down on Books, before ducking under green baize cloth to adjust the focus on its twelve-inch rectilinear lens.
Pushing his opening, the lanky reporter began to drill. “So, Marshal, what have you concluded from this gory mess?”
Thibido surveyed the big saloon. “Well, all of El Paso’s hard cases seem to have convened to gun each other down. I’ll propose to the city council we pay for these burials, since they’ve done us a civic favor. No innocents lost in here today.”
“Any idea who shot first, or why?”
“Nope. Except to burnish their bad reputations? Pulford and Serrano were mankillers. Jay Cobb was just a pimple-faced punk, a sharpshooter only with his mouth. Jerk didn’t stand a Chinaman’s chance against these gunslingers. And J.B. Books, well, his reputation rode into town before he did.” The Marshal sighed, exhausted at just the thought of how much legal trouble cleaning up this big mess was going to be.
“I’ll tell you straight, Dobkins. We’ve had bloody hell here these past ten years, since John Selman blew Wes Hardin’s brains out in the Acme in ’95. Then Scarborough killed Selman. Then some tough killed Selman. Before that Marshal Stoudenmire shot Hale Manning and his brother Frank retaliated, killing the Marshal.” The short, well-dressed lawman gestured around the barroom with vigor.
“Now I’m standing at six-shooter junction. If these shootists don’t stop invading our fair city to assassinate each other, there’s going to be nothing left of El Paso but burnt dirt!”
Both men were distracted by the sight of two young boys playing with Jack Pulford. The cardsharp was slumped against the back wall of the Constantinople. J. B. Books had killed him from sixteen feet, both men standing and firing at each other. One shot, right in the heart. But the bullet, stopped by fibrous heart muscle, hadn’t exited, and now the two boys, who must have snuck in the back door, were bent over Pulford’s corpse, playfully lifting his slack left arm up and down. With each lever action of his pump handle arm, blood swelled from the wound in the deceased’s chest. The mischievous boys were pumping a dead man dry.
Appalled, the city Marshal yelled to another deputy. “Jackson! Get those damned kids outta here! Playin’ with the corpses. Christ!”
“So Marshal, you have no idea how five noted gunslingers managed to show up in the same saloon at the same time in broad daylight for the shootout of the century, right under your nose?”
Walter Thibido had had enough.
“No, by ginger, I don’t! And I’ve had quite enough of you today, too!” His face flushed red, one neck vein began to pulse as he shouted. “I want everyone not involved in this police investigation out of this saloon right now!” The Marshal pulled his own pistol to wave above his head. “That includes children, dogs, and journalists!”
At that moment, Skelly puffed hard into the brass pipe in his mouth, squeezed the bulb, and his exhalation blew the alcohol flame through the rear of the tin trough he was holding and ignited the magnesium powder in the trough. For a second the barroom lit up like the Fourth of July.
Everyone -- children, dog, deputies, the Marshal, frightened bystanders -- jumped! They might all have been standing in Hade’s waiting room. The photographer quickly extinguished the flame, put down his flashpan and began fanning away the cloud of smoke. Five corpses never moved a muscle.
Gillom avoided details over his mother’s supper that night, saying only that people had been shot in the Constantinople that afternoon, probably Books, too. Bond Rogers had decided to move her son out of his smaller upstairs bedroom and open that one up to another boarder, if any roomers ever showed up on her doorstep again after all this bloody mayhem. She wanted Gillom staying in J. B. Books’ larger downstairs room. The shootist had left nothing behind but his notorious reputation and the fact he’d shot two country cousins who’d tried to kill him in that very corner room only a week ago. No respectable person would rent a room housing those murderous ghosts till long forgot. She also thought it would be easier to keep track of her delinquent son in a main floor room, right below hers.
Gillom was happy to help his mother move his clothes downstairs to Books’ suddenly vacant quarters. His nostrils still caught scent of the faint mix of flaming gunpowder and urine from when Books had doused the burning bedsheets with the contents of his pisspot after those two jaspers had tried to murder him right here. His mother had bought new bedding and a mattress, to which he quickly gave a bounce test. Gillom rose from the refurbished bed and went to the west and then the south windows, sliding their wooden sashes higher to let in more cool night air. These glassed downstairs windows will make my comings and goings easier, he realized.
Gillom returned to bed, pulled his bedspread up higher against the spring chill. But he was restless, squirming under stiff, new sheets, nerves still taut from the events of his momentous day. The seventeen-year-old jerked again from bed, padded in nightshirt and bare feet to the curtained closet. He groped the top shelf inside where he had dumped his cowboy hat and leather baseball glove and pulled Books’ whiskey bottle from a cubbyhole his mother had missed. A corner of redeye remained.
Hurling himself back into bed, Gillom made the wooden frame sway and creak. Nestling with his prize, he pulled the cork with his teeth, grimaced as the whiskey seared his palate. He mused: Men drink whiskey, tough men like J. B. Books. I’ll have to get used to this harsh taste. My sarsaprilla days are over.
Burning alcohol slid down his teenaged gullet and mixed with the warm beer he’d gulped six hours earlier. Gillom Rogers relaxed, remembering the first time he’d encountered the famous gunman, just a week ago. Books had spotted him spying, grabbed him by the throat and yanked him right up to this very room’s window. Nearly choked him out before the sick old man had collapsed on the windowsill, exhausted. Gillom dozed.
He awoke to whispers on the wind. Curtains in the west window to the side of his headboard moved in the morning freshet. Bright sunlight. A giggle and a loud sssshh. I’m not dreaming, somebody is spying on me! Eyes wide, Gillom leapt out of bed, jumped to the open window, thrust his head outside.
“Hey!” The gigglers jerked back in fear, surprised by the teenager’s suddenness. “Don’t you spy on me! I’ll whup your setters so hard, you’ll stand for a week!”
Then he launched right through the open window to do it. Scared by this angry young man right in their small faces, the two peepers turned tail and skedaddled across the grassy yard. A skinny tyke with black hair and big ears and a taller blonde towhead.
Both boys flew over his mother’s picket fence on the bounce.
Must have talked to someone, heard what I did, Gillom thought. Gol-lee! I’m notorious before breakfast!
His mother sat at the head of the long dining table, Daily Herald in hand. Her right hand quivered as she turned the front page to continue reading about El Paso’s killings yesterday. Her intake of breath startled the silence. She’d read her son’s name again in the newspaper.
Gillom slunk into the dining room. He’d heard her crank telephone in the front parlor ring several times, but had dozed until little boys whispering outside his window had pulled him from conflicted sleep. He could see from the Herald’s headline how deep he was in….
“Invitation To A Gunfight! J. B. Books Killed In El Paso Bloodbath!”
His mother lowered the paper to search him with haunted eyes. She shoved her untouched plate of eggs and biscuit and unsipped cup of coffee along the tabletop.
“You eat my breakfast. I have no appetite.”
“Please. That’s a funny word, isn’t it? How one can twist its meaning into something completely different. You displease me greatly. My son, the only child I have born, is now a killer.”
“Did him a favor, mother. Mister Books asked me to. It was…merciful.”
Her face was drawn, but her voice remarkably level.
“It was a bloody slaughter. Which you evidently helped arrange. For some kind of payoff. Oh yes, I read you took his guns.”
“It was our deal. His pistols for my service. Mister Books didn’t wish to die in bed, so he committed suicide.”
“In public. And by assisting him in this public slaughter, you’ve brought shame upon us. Disgraced our family’s proud name…around all of Texas. Forever.”
Her son waved his hands to stop. “Mother! People are saying Mr. Books did El Paso a public service. Rid this town of all its hard cases. And I helped him do it.”
Her eyes flared. “I didn’t read that in here.” She tapped the inky newsprint with a sharp fingernail. “You are named the assassin’s assistant….Where are they?”
“Oh. They’re well hid.”
“We’ll have to turn them in. To the Marshal. I’m sure they’ll be wanted.”
“Be damned if I will.”
“Look, I’m not breaking any law. Thibido will just sell ‘em, after the court work is done. He’s a shyster, a peacock. His deputies do all his dirty work.”
“Well you’re already infamous, taking his guns and using them on poor Mister Books. If you’re seen on the street with those pistols, somebody will try to shoot you, too, to steal them. Until we’re rid of those bad luck weapons, wash our hands thoroughly of this shameful business, more trouble will follow us. I feel pain in my bones already.”
Gillom rose from the table, his loaned breakfast untouched.. “Be goddamned if I give up those guns. To anybody. I earned ‘em.”
His threat hanging heavy, the young man stomped back down the hall to his room. His disobedience, again, finally cracked his mother. Bond burst into tears, slamming both palms onto the hard wooden table.
“Damn you, John Bernard Books!”
If anybody but the Lord had been listening, they’d have been shocked. It was the first time Mrs. Rogers had ever sworn.
Gillom left by a side window in his back bedroom, a new convenience keeping his mother from interrogating him coming and going from their house. He stopped to pull his new guns from their hiding hole in the woodpile next to the storage shed. He fondled his prizes. These were 1890 Remingtons, basically the 1875 model with the webbed underbarrel assembly cut away. They were chambered for centerfire .44-.40 brass cartridges blasted through 5 1/2” barrels. A hot lead load of 40 grains of black powder, the bullets of which could be used interchangeably in the famous Winchester ’73 rifle. He stuck them inside his leather belt, butts forward, out of sight under his blue wool sack coat. Gillom stepped over the yard’s white picket fence and hurried downtown.
He headed up Overland, turned one block north onto noisy San Antonio Street, one of the main merchant byways of booming El Paso at its hard turn into a new century. He strode past the Liberty Bakery, Gamozzi’s Ice Cream Parlor, C. S. Pickerell’s Confectionary, any of which might have tempted his sweet tooth. He headed toward the meat markets further down the chuck-holed, sand and gravel street. Two gigantic Percheron draft horses pulled a long wagon loaded with barrels of beer fresh from the brewery bound for one of the ninety-six saloons crowded all over this border town.
On the northeast corner of Mesa and San Antonio Streets stood his favorite, the old Acme Saloon, where he normally would have snuck in the back to check the day drinkers and drunks dozing off a long night before. It was in the Acme’s front barroom where the West’s most notorious shootist, John Wesley Hardin, was rolling dice for drinks on a hot August night in 1895. John Selman stepped inside the batwing front door and dropped his prey like a stone with one lucky shot right in the back of Wes Hardin’s head. Selman got off on that murder charge even though Hardin never had a gunfighting chance. For even as an older man, Hardin was still quite dangerous and generally disliked around El Paso.
The Acme Saloon was thus consecrated ground to Gillom.
But this crisp spring day he bypassed his shrine. Jim Dandy’s Leather Goods was near some of the meat markets on San Antonio Street, close to the source of the cowhides they worked into their leather products. And the stench from Jim’s tanning vats blended in with the smell of butchered beeves aging on big iron hooks in the meat markets, so those butchers didn’t complain. To them the stench smelled like money.