The Old Colts

Excerpt

          “Mr. Masterson?”
          Bat cocks an eye.
          “Guy to see you.”
          “Collector?”
          “You can smell ‘em a mile away – so I set him up.” The copy boy is sixteen and Lower East Side and is name is Sammy Taub.  “Told him you’d never sell it–not for love or lucre.”
          “Attaboy.”
          “Say, Mr. Masterson, would you put in a good word for me with Mr. Lewis?  I don’t want to be a copy boy all my life.”
          “What do you want?”
          “A beat. City Hall, PD, maybe sports, like you.”
          “Okeh. You get a little fur on your upper lip and we’ll see.  Send the gink in.”
          “Yessir. Same split?”
          “You got it.”
          Sammy’s had snaps from the doorway as though by rubber band and Bat opens a deep drawer in his pigeon-hole desk.  It contains an arsenal of old Colt revolvers. Taking the one on top, closing the drawer, checking the grip for notches, he lays the Peacemaker on the desk in museum view and resumes, with Parker pen on yellow copy pad, his journalistic labors.
          “Mr. Masterson?”
          Bat cocks an eye.
          “Bat Masterson?”
          They came to the offices of the Telegraph, once a carbarn at West 50th and Eighth Avenue, every week or so the year round, and for the same reason. This one was a dressy, flashy, wheezy gent down from Waltham, Mass., who played with a pearl stickpin and popped sweat the second he had a gander at the weapon on the desk.  A seat was proffered. He settled into it. Said it was an honor and a privilege to meet Bat Masterson. Said he was a student of the West, regretful he never had an opportunity to partake of its adventure and romance. Said he would like to “palaver” a little about the old days. Bat said shoot. They talked about Dodge and Wyatt Earp and the killing of Sergeant King in Sweetwater, Texas, when Molly Brennan gave her life for Bat’s, and the scrap at Adobe Walls where Bat and a handful of buffalo hunters held off a horde of redskins and the rescue of the Germain sisters from the Cheyenne while  Bat was a scout for General Miles.
          “Earp was your friend.”
          “My best.”
          “He’s the other one I’d like to meet. Saw somewhere he lives in California.”
          “I heard he does.”
          The gent glanced at the gun on the desk, glanced away.
          “Don’t you miss those times, Mr. Masterson?”
          “Not a damn. I’m a New Yorker now.”
          “How long have you lived here?”
          “Fourteen years.”
          “I declare, I don’t know how a rough customer like you--begging your pardon--a man with a past like yours winds up on a newspaper in New York.”
          “Luck and talent.”
          “Pretty tame though, ain’t it?  I mean, compared to the wide open spaces?”
          “I hope I never see those dreary old prairies again.”
          “Er, uh, is that your gun?”
          “It is.”
          “Mind if I have a look?”
          Bat passed it over.
          The hands trembled. The cylinder was turned, the weapon hefted. A fat index finger worked its way down the grip, counting the notches.
          “Twenty-three,” Bat supplied.
          A wheeze, of pleasure and confirmation. “You killed twenty-three men!”
          Bat shrugged.
          “I must tell you, sir, I collect a few guns. On an amateur basis, of course. Mr. Masterson, I will give you fifty dollars for this gun.”
          “Not that one, you won’t.”
          “But I can buy one like it–identical--in any pawnshop for ten.”
          “Not that one, you can’t.”
          “Why not?”
          Bat set the hook. “That was the gun killed Walker and Wagner after they killed my brother Ed.”
          “Is that a fact?” The listener was all ears, including lobes.  He knew the story by rote, but hungered for it first-hand.
          Bat reeled the line in slowly but succinctly: how Ed Masterson, serving as deputy Marshal, had been surrounded by six Texans outside the Lady Gay in Dodge one drunken night in ’78 and gutshot by Walker or Wagner at such close range that his coat was set ablaze; how Bat came on the run and fired four rounds from sixty feet in semi-darkness; how one shot felled Wagner, who died the next day, and three into Wagner, who lingered a month with a hole in his lung before expiring; and how--here the narrator lowered the brim of his hat to half-mast and let his voice break ever so slightly--Ed passed on within half an hour, in the arms of his younger brother, who wept like a child. By this grand finale the gun collector had out a silk handkerchief and was bailing both cheeks.
          “Mr. Masterson,” said he, “I will give you a hundred dollars for this weapon.”
          Derby down, Bat sat for a spell as though whipsawed by emotion and economics. “I am a little low on funds at the moment,” he muttered at length. “Let’s see the color of your money.”
          “Gladly.”
          Sir Waltham of Mass. extricated ass from chair and wallet from hip.  Licking a thumb, he laid two fifties on the desk like aces, back-to-back.
          “Mr. Masterson, I can’t say--“ 
          “Good day.”
          “I assure you, I will never part with this historic weapon. It will be handed down--“
          “Get the hell on your horse.”
          “Yes, sir!”
          Exit the gink.
          Enter Sammy Taub. He was given a fiver, his usual cut of the take.  He tucked it away, sucked a jujube, and contemplated his future.
          “You won’t forget about Mr. Lewis, sir?”
          “Not me.”
          “How many guns you got left?”
          “As many as you’ve got suckers.”
          Exit the youth, grinning, while Bat attended to the completion of his column. It ran daily, required two hours to write on average, and was called “Masterson’s Views on Timely Topics”--which topics were invariably pugilistic. Bat had promoted fights and refereed fights and seconded fighters. He knew everyone in the game, from Jess Willard, the then heavyweight champ, to Tex Rickard, to the blind and pitiful pug who sold pencils outside Grupp’s Gym on 116th St.  When he pulled his editorial pistol he meant to use it, and did, to the woe of fakers and fixers and the glee of readers, so that his column was scripture in the city and widely quoted on the sports pages of other papers nationally. His subject this afternoon was the Sailor White vs. Victor McLaglen–billed as “The Actor Heavyweight”–fracus upcoming at the Garden.  He finished, scrawled a “30,” pushed up from the desk, left his office, strolled through the rivet of telephones and clack of typewriters and roar of reportorial brains that was the newsroom, dropped the pages into a wire basket on the city desk, reversed himself and would have departed for the day had he not been waved  into a glassed-in office by the arm of W.E. Lewis, editor of the Morning Telegraph.
          “You hooked another one.”
          “Why not?”
          “How much?”
          “A hundred.”
          “Bat, you have a larcenous heart.”
          “Look, he’ll sell it tomorrow for two hundred.”
          W.E. tilted his chair. “I thought I should tell you. Reception called a few minutes ago. Some guy was asking if Bat Masterson really works here. She said you do and did he want an appointment?  But he just walked out on her. Odd.”
          “What’d he look like?”
          “An outlander. Tall, she said. Lean. Your age, maybe a little older. She used the word “grim”--said she wouldn’t care to meet him in a dark alley.”
          They were old friends, Bat and W. E. Lewis. They had met in Dodge way back when. Lewis, then a newsman in Kansas City, had been prospecting the West for “color” for articles and wanted Bat to introduce him to the James brothers, who had just raided Northfield, Minnesota and had ridden away with bloody noses and empty saddlebags. “I better not,” Bat told him. “They’ll be meaner then ever now. They’d eat you alive.” It was good advice. Later, as editor and columnist, each was in the other’s debt. It was Lewis who helped spring Bat from jail on his arrival in New York in 1902, and eventually gave  him a crack at covering the fight game. In return, Bat lent Lewis’s sheet, besides the renown of his name, an honesty and a dignity in exceedingly short supply.
          W.E. locked hands behind head and studied the other over the rims of his specs. “Something’s been eating you lately. Money? You can have an advance of salary anytime.”
          “I’m having a bum streak. I’ll get lucky again. You know--feathers today, chicken tomorrow.”
          “That’s what they all say.”
          “Listen,” said Bat. “Once out in Dodge I had a badger in a barrel on Front Street and I put up a sign. I bet anybody with a dog their dog couldn’t get my badger out of that barrel. Somebody’d come along nearly every day and put up ten bucks and drop their dog in the barrel. Well, they’d go at it, tooth and claw, and tip over the barrel and my animal would take off with the dog after him and  I won’t say how much I lost. But I had faith and finally got lucky.”
          “How?”
          Bat grinned, tipped his hat, turned to go, and said, over his shoulder, “Shot the damned badger.” 

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