Authors: Ed Gorman
FOR MIKE SHOHL
In the worst of my drinking days, which was rightâ¦
Whenever I needed to pick up a couple freelance helpers,â¦
Tib Mason sat in back with the shotguns. James rodeâ¦
The mayor of a prosperous Colorado town once told meâ¦
I woke up much earlier than I wanted to. Fromâ¦
“You're Mr. Ford.”
Two days later, I left the hospital. My gun armâ¦
Despite what the ministers will tell you, there are whorehousesâ¦
Fifteen minutes later it got awfully crowded in Fairbain'sâ¦
They knew what they were doing.
Delirium. Pastpresent. Images of my lifetime merging. Remorse, bliss, fear,â¦
That afternoon the hospital was quiet. No nurses bustling about;â¦
I met Marshal Wickham on the steps outside.
Twenty minutes later I was half a mile from town.
The desk clerk said, “A Mr. Spenser was asking forâ¦
I spent an hour in Spenser's hotel room. I mostlyâ¦
I sat my horse in the woods that ran behindâ¦
Marshal Wickham was in his office. Just inside the frontâ¦
I went inside the shack. The dirt floor smelled likeâ¦
A small lamp burned deep in the dusk darkness as Iâ¦
As I'd told Wayland, I had a pretty good ideaâ¦
I spent an hour looking for him. Office, livery, saloons,â¦
The first train out arrived just before dawn. Jane waitedâ¦
hope this has been worth waiting for,” scoffed the stout man. “I still say it looks like just another Gatling gun.”
And so it did, a yoke-mounted machine gun on a carriage of wood and brass. The tires were steel, spoked. Nothing new. The Gatling gun had been around since 1862. This was 1881.
Four somber men in dark, expensive traveling suits walked around the gun, giving it expert appraisal.
How many men would it kill? And how quickly?
Around the world, politicians, kings, monarchs, mercenary leaders, and despots of every description wanted to know.
Noah Ford watched this inspection through his field glasses. A tall man with a long, melancholy face, dressed in trail-dusty denim shirt and jeans, he sat his pinto on a foothill that overlooked the field where the machine gun was being demonstrated.
The mountains looked cool and austere in the dis
tance, much more inviting than the sticky eighty-one degrees that had kept his clothes damp since waking early this morning. Somewhere it was written that Montana Territory wasn't supposed to get this hot and humid. Somewhere.
Ford watched as the blond man in the tan suit stepped forward, smiling, gesturing for his helpers to come over. The next few minutes resembled the final routine in a magic show.
The blond man and his helpers lifted the yoke of the mounted gun and moved the weapon out farther into the empty field. Then he began walking around the gun, gesturing to various parts of it as he spoke, much as a magician would to the box he was about to disappear into.
Even in pantomime, the blond man was impressive. He had the skills of a good stage actor, one who spoke with his body as much as he did with his mouth. While the men hadn't burst into applause, their faces had taken on expressions of lively interest.
The first thing the blond man wanted to show his guests was how easily the gun could be loaded. There were loading problems with several models of the Gatling. There was no problem with this one. He then gave each man one of the bullets he would be using. In the past few years Gatling had started chambering rimfire copper-cased cartridges for more reliable use. He pointed out the improvements he'd made with the copper casings for his own weapon. They were superior to those Gatling used. Or so he claimed.
The final part of the prefiring demonstration was the discussion of the barrels that revolved around the central shaft. Six in the Gatling. Ten in this one. And then a two-minute walk-through of the cam-operated bolts that controlled the bullets. No misfires here; no, sir.
Ford scanned the faces, tight. If they weren't smiling, the guests were at least nodding along with the things the blond man was saying. Nodding in agreement. Yes, the blond man was saying, even given the considerable number of improvements Gatling had made on its weaponryâespecially after it was bought by Coltâit still suffered from a number of problemsâ¦
âthe only part of the demonstration that really mattered. The part that provedâor disprovedâall the claims the blond man had made for his own unique machine gun.
“My God!” one of the four men shouted above the furor of the hand-cranked gun exploding into action.
Where the Gatling fired 900 rounds a minute, this fired 1,400. Where the Gatling bores were troublesomely tapered, these were round. And where the Gatling had never measured up to its potential in terms of accuracy, this weapon was ripping into the center of each of the three bull's-eye-style targets the blond man had set up before the demonstration.
Noah Ford again put his field glasses to his eyes. There was real joy on the countenances of the four men. They seemed almost childlike in their enthusiasm for the extraordinary show they were watching. Probably not even women and whiskey could excite them to this degree. What they were observing was power, the kind of power that could topple kingdoms, democracies, empires. You could always buy whiskey; you could always buy pussy. You couldn't always buy power.
The air was hazy blue with drifting gunsmoke; the mountains boomed with the echoes of the relentless gunfire. And then, in the ensuing aftermath, as if the blond man had conjured it up, a cooling wind came from the north. On its invisible streams soared a huge hawk, as spectacular in wing span and majesty as the new weapon they'd just witnessed in action.
The smiles were plain to see now. One of the men, unable to contain himself, strode over to the blond man and wrapped him tightly inside an embarrassing bear hug. The others soon gathered around the blond man and congratulated him in less effusive ways.
The field where the demonstration took place was on the eastern edge of the ranch where the blond man had lived for the better part of the past year. After the guests had seen what they came to see, the blond man led them over to the stagecoach he'd rented for the day. Then all of them climbed inside and went back to town, leaving the blond man's assistants to wheel the weapon back in
side the big, white barn that they'd fitted out as their laboratory.
Noah turned his pinto back toward the city, taking a narrow pass as a shortcut.
n the worst of my drinking days, which was right after the war in which I'd been a Union spy and occasional assassin, I rarely looked forward to revisiting the saloon where I'd gotten drunk the previous night.
I was what people like to call a troublemaker. I argued, I belittled, I started fights for myself. I was even skillful enough in my red-eyed way to start fights for other people. Saloonkeepers were rarely happy to see me return. Many of them, in fact, told me I wasn't welcome and tossed my sorry ass out.
A four-day blackout got me off the bottle. I wish I could tell you that I had had a religious vision, or that I came to the philosophical conclusion that I was wasting my life, or that I realized how much more good, clean fun the sober life would be.
What it was, I'd never had a blackout that had stretched beyond thirty-six hours, and a four-day blank spot just plain scared the hell out of me. I woke up on a sunny Sunday morning in an alley in St. Louis, minus my Western boots, my Stetson, all my money, and all my identification. The last was the
worst because, for an entire hour, I couldn't remember who I was.
I never did put those missing days together. When I remembered that my name was Noah Ford, that I was a field investigator for a branch of the United States Army, and that I was on assignment looking for two men who'd held up a train and unwittingly stolen some secret Army items, I wired Washington that I'd been kidnapped, tortured, and left to die. I therefore needed money immediately and new credentials to follow posthaste. I doubted they believed my story. They knew I was a drinker. But I captured 86 percent of the men they sent me after, so they decided to give me another chance.
The money came in seventy-two hours. The credentials took several days. I spent the time working for room and board at a convent. I painted the house the nuns lived in and then cleaned out an ancient barn that had bedeviled them since they'd moved in a year ago.
The first few days of sobriety were a lark. I kept thinking how easy this was going to be. I couldn't figure out why people complained about how hard it was to give up drinking. I didn't realize that I was having a sort of grace period. No anger, no fear, no irritation. Hard physical work that left me exhausted at the end of a ten-hour day, followed by good food, a bit of quiet reading in the attic of the convent, and then ten hours of sound sleep in a clean, sturdy bed.
But after my credentials came and I got back to my real workâwhich involved not only investigating, but lying, cheating, stealing, and even killing when necessaryâthen it wasn't so easy to walk past a sa
loon without feeling the shaky urge to take a drink, to hide inside the dark solace of drunkenness.
It was the sort of saloon where people who thought they ruled the world gathered to inflict their loud opinions on the expensive air.
You hear the same kind of loud alcoholic opinions shouted in deadfalls and cheap saloons, too, only not with quite the same air of certainty.
The name was the Founders Club and it was in the best section of town, far enough away from the raw wound of the small slum to make you forget slums altogetherâwhich the members of the Founders Club had done a long time ago.
The blond man I'd seen demonstrate the machine gun earlier in the day sat with two of the men who'd seen the gun in action. I was inside the club because a retired colonel I'd known from the war had asked the club to serve me lunch here as a guest. They hadn't asked him any questions, which was fine, because he wasn't prepared to give them any answers.
The conversations I could overhear were about what you'd expect, most of the subjects gleaned from newspapers and magazines. New York City lighting every street with electricity. Canned fruits available coast to coast. Fifty thousand telephones in use across the country. The sort of things that interested businessmen. The only jabber that really caught my ear was about a gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona, at some corral. Who isn't interested in a gunfight story? A lot of them are bullshit, but if the teller of the tale
is good at his craft then the more bullshit the merrier, I say.
I drank coffee until my small steak came. The blond man didn't spot me until I'd been there fifteen minutes. He did one of those double takes that stage comedians like to do. From then on, whenever he raised his gaze to look at me, he glared.
It took him an hour to get rid of the two men. At the end there was a lot of handshaking and bicep-patting and contrived smiling. They wanted what he had, which was the weapon; he wanted what they had, which was a great deal of money. It's interesting to listen to all the praise on a man's lips turn to disdain as soon as he's out of earshot of the man he's been buttering up. We all do it but it ain't very pretty.
After they had disappeared into the cloakroom, he came over and sat down. Neither of us spoke for a while. He took a cigar from inside his suit coat, snipped off the smoking end with a silver clipper, got it lighted, and said, “Mother told me you were dead.”
“Well, you know good old Mom. Probably wishful thinking on her part. She never did like me much.”
“Neither did Dad or our dear sister Claudene.”
“How many husbands has our sister poisoned by now?”
“You always were a cynical sonofabitch, Noah. I suppose that's why you took up with the Yankees in the war. They don't have any respect for tradition or heritage and you don't, either. You had a good life on the plantation and you turned your back on it.”
“How many Yanks did you assassinate during the war?”
“Near as I can figure, thirty.”
“My last count was forty Rebs, including two colonels.”
For the first time, he smiled. “We always were competitive.”
“That's how they raised us, even though we didn't realize it until we were older. I don't miss them, David.”
“Well, they don't miss you, either. In fact, nobody's permitted to utter your name in their presence.”
The waiter came. My brother ordered whiskey. I ordered more coffee.
We gave the verbal jousting a rest. I silently noted his thinning blond hair, his dentures, his jowly but still handsome face. Just as he no doubt noted my crushed right ear, the twenty pounds I'd put on, and the occasional slight twitch of my gun hand, a memento of a day-long torturing by two female Reb spies who disabused me of the notion that females are necessarily more civilized than men.
He said, “I suppose I don't really hate you anymore.”
“That's awfully white of you.”
“You look sort of weary, actually. And I guess that makes me sad. I suppose you're still fighting the war.”
“Half this country is still fighting the war. There're seditionist groups everywhere. The men you're dealing withâthe arms dealersâat least two of them are seditionists. They figure if they blow up enough courthouses and trains that the South will rise again.”
“Maybe it will.”
“You know better than that.”
He sighed. “Yes, I guess I do.” He finished his drink. The familiar blue Ford eyes stared at me across the long melancholy years. We'd been loving brothers until the war had come along. Now we were nervous strangers. “You here to kill me, are you, Noah?”
“I'm here to get the gun back. You stole it from Mannering and then you killed Mannering. He invented it.”
He shrugged. “One of my men killed him, actually. We took the gun from his laboratory. I was rifling his safe to get the papers for the designs. He got a gun somehow and tried to shoot me in the back. Got me high up in the left shoulder. I still don't have full use of my left arm. My man didn't have any choice. Killed him so he couldn't kill me. And, anyway, he'd only gotten the gun to a certain stage and didn't know how to go beyond it. I made the gun into a masterpiece.”
“Humble as ever.”
The waiter again. Another round.
“I don't have to kill you, David. Washington would be just as happy if I didâyou've poached an awful lot of their experimental weapons the last few yearsâbut I convinced them that Mannering's gun was more important than you.”
“A true and loyal brother.”
“Don't make me kill you, David.”
The refreshments came. We sipped in silence for a time.
I said, “Why don't I get a buckboard and come back to your ranch house and pick up the gun?”
“Just like that, huh?”
“Just like that. Then you can do whatever the hell you want to do without any Federals on your back.”
He took more of his drink. Set the glass down on the starched, virginal, white tablecloth. The whiskey looked rich auburn against the white. “I have kids and a wife to support.”
“I know. Molly.”
“A beautiful wife and an expensive wife. She's planning that we'll use the proceeds from the gun sale to spend a year in Europe. I haven't seen her in nearly a year. I want to bring her good news.”
“I'm told you have a woman here.”
A smile. “Gosh, imagine that.”
The waiter. “Another, sir?” he said to David.
“None for me,” I said.
“Very good, sir.”
When the waiter was gone, I said, “David, listen to me. Whatever else, we're brothers.”
“Cain and Abel?”
“I wish I could find this as funny as you do.”
“Then what? You take the gun and then arrest me for murder?”
“I'm going to give you a pass on the murder charge. A forty-eight-hour head start. And even after forty-eight hours, I don't plan to look for you very hard.”
“I suppose I should say thank you, brother. But I'm not going to let you have the gun, Noah.”
When we were alone again, I said, “Make this easy for me, David.”
He didn't say anything.
Then, “It's my job, David.”
“Ah, yes, your job. For President Grant. Good old Grant. I hear he drinks a touch. I hear he was quite courteous to General Lee when the South surrendered. That's the only time he treated us with any respect. Or don't you care how many of us died down there, Noah?”
I stood up. “I'll be there at sundown, David.”