Chapter Twenty-Six A SIX-SHOOTER SHOT SIX TIMES
Well Billy Fitzpacker he warnt no packer
Lessn ya mean packin a gun
As the law of the land
He held one in each hand
To shoot down an outlaw on the run
This lawman Fitzpacker came across a dirty bushwhacker
Name of Tommy Gravel
Bad move by Gravel for thar warnt no judgin gavel
I bet he wisht he never touched Fitzpacker’s gun
Oh the day it was fare
The contest the same
Just shooting down targets
Is a harmless game
And Fitzpacker he won him the game
Fitzpacker won him the game
When behind him came Gravel
Who picked Fitzpacker’s pistol
Shot him six times in his frame
Shot him six times in his frame
Off Gravel did run to the Californy sun
That coward ran like a outlaw
But Billy Fitzpacker so hated a bushwhacker
He survived and pursued after the thaw
It war pretty goddamn soon in a Californee saloon
Fitzpacker ran his man to the ground
He let Gravel draw then shot him in the jaw
N mounted horse and rode home neath the moon
He mounted his horse and rode home neath the mountain mooooooon
–Traditional western song
William Festus Fitzpacker was no more middle-named Festus than he had been a Texas Ranger, but more than one passing stranger would tell he heard tell of how it was none other than Bill Fitzpacker, that’s aright—William Festus Fitzpacker—who killed more than thirty Messicans, more than fifty Tonkawa, more than a hundred Comanche, some two dozen Apaches and a good eleven bounty criminals for pay which is why they call him or used to a bounty hunter. Bounty.
But that ain’t nothing because you can’t count all them what he shot during the war itself and after on raids rooting out raiders intent on wreaking havoc cross the border some say, believe it or not, warnt legitimate. The border.
I guess it would have been the rambler in him, the boredom of life without danger, that set him on west, they say, some say, through Mexico, along the border, the Apaches maintaining a wide berth—though it goes without saying you could add a couple dozen to his total just by happenstance (was he really known as the Raging Puma of the Sonora?)—and it ain’t true he robbed a bank here and there to pay his way, for no Federales were ever reported on his trail as they would have been sure were he up to criminal ways, which anyway don’t comport with what we already know of this legendary larger than life figger, not to mention which Mexsican authorities were known to employ him to bring in the scalps of recalcitruant Apaches.
‘Three men in this camp are named festus, so why not just add a middle name? Plenty a folks have middle names?’
But, really, though it be said with certainty how likely is it he befriended the legendary outlaw Joaquin Murriata down in Sonora? Sure, plenty people spotted the two and sure enough both are the type you see once and never mistake, what with Fitzpacker’s size and dark Murriata with that scar from eye to ear. And don’t get all het up, it’s just like I’m sayin it’s, what, improbable, unlikely, but then again that’s what these fellers is is unlikely and that’s what makes them legends, but when you think about the odds of them meetin up again, and, you know, given all that happened—and try crossin them mountains and go on down into that valley and say it didn’t happen. What if Murriata was seen again? There’s plenty outlaws and plenty Messican outlaws, plenty more Messican outlaws than other Messicans, and I don’t figger like some it makes no sense does it that Murriata was from Chile, what’d he do, swim up here? no, Fitzpacker broke the gang, shot Murriata through the forehead in Death Valley like they says and then retired havin avenged himself on that miner scumsucking pig and pacifying to the Pacific and nothing left but the quiet life in the city and that, what was it? Gout?
Late morning of a Mexican summer day with the sun hung so low cactus burst one after another like gun shots, a dry, rancid pilgrim rode up to the lone cantina in the shadeless arroyo village Muertefeliz on a dead horse or a horse that died before he could have though he wouldn’t have bothered tethering it to the post that wasn’t there. He stood six foot and five and wore two heavy pistols in a holster slung low enough to mince his gait a mite. He carried a sheathed Bowie knife attached to his belt. Inside the bar, silence wafted, not truly concentric, from a round wood table where sat the fearsome bandit Joaquin Murriata, his table strewn with an autumnal premonition of buzzard feathers that drifted in through the holes in the walls. Anyone knew it was Murriata from the scar that ran from the corner of his left eye to the missing tip of his left ear, but no one was in there to know—they had left and taken their fear with them—until the tall rank stranger strode in, his natural force of primate belying his dehydration, his proximity to death that incidentally did not change upon entering a tavern in Muertefeliz in which the only occupant was Joaquin Murriata, as fierce a bandido as ever shot holes through the lore of the south and west and up into the valleys of California and the foothills of the Sierras. He once shot a priest between the eyes point blank, bullet real. In those days the region was so poor it was said the only way to survive was to die and eat the buzzards that picked at your corpse, so it is with some surprise we note a fat worm in the bottle, half empty, standing before Murriata the bottle standing, the worm standing in the liquid in the bottle that was mostly alcohol though no thicker than the shadows for that fact. All trepidation had been annihilated by heat and the fear that had fled pushing smaller things before it as if a wild wind that dare not pause for gust. Outside the tavern where the cemetery would have been had there been a hill with soil and hope two skeletons beneath their respectless piles of stones discussed the way incident bore down on circumstance.
‘Why did he come to Comala?’
‘Did he come to Comala?’
‘You felt the earth tremble as did I.’
‘Yes…This is not Comala.’
‘Yes…yes, and the other also came…eventually.’
‘We exchange them as if they were no more than corpses.’
‘What are they?’
Inside sat two men at one table with one bottle and one worm. One of them emerged alive and he had a scar that ran from the corner of his left eye to the missing tip of his left ear.
I have it on good authority the two ran together for two years before the federales forced them up through California where Murriata formed his gang and continued his lawless ways and Fitzpacker crossed the Sierras with a new story, a clean slate as it were, and better ability with a six-shooter than anybody else at just the time when some law was of need around here. And declare right here and now I am in agreement with the authorities of the time, and I expect that like many of you I spoke with the man in Virginia City or somewhere else and found him well-spoken and in fact would dispute the very tale I tell in that in my opinion I believe he was working as an operative of a higher authority with writ to bring the scourge Murriata represented down entire as he did later accomplish.
So I went down to that village in Mexico and found the ceiling a mere seven feet tall, with a cement roof, or adobe, which may or may not be cement and if it is consists of ground up bones to make the good stuff stretch, and interviewed a witness who said neither was a hunchback, said they was gonna shoot it out in the bar over a cultural insult having to do with a local variety of alcohol but neither could enter the saloon in shooting position, so, like they say as the worm turns, the two was last seen galloping off in search of a saloon with higher ceilings. Having thus given up on collecting a worthy story, I slept that night in the rib bones of Fitzpacker’s dead horse, covered by a blanket bigger than a teepee, and was joined upon my own request by a pretty young thing called Juanita, whose grandfather asked for fewer pesos than I had and with whom I spent the entire night before exhaustion befell me chasing without success of capture that Mexican filly inside the confines of our osteoparadisiacal bedroom.
We seen him up in Hangtown with Bob Carson and Pegleg Smith, gambling at the Pan and Rocker, where he shot Big Bill Pemberton for calling him a cheat and they fell to wrasslin for Big Bill was like a bear and afore they was done two Big Bill got some chewin in on Fitzpacker’s ear. Took three growed men to roll Pemberton off, strong as Fitzpacker was, for the man was like a musken ox of the Himalayan mountain heights, and in all that wrasslin none was tending to the wound in his neck which spouted like a geezer the whole time, not a one of us didn’t leave there without what we had some of the blood of Big Bill Pemberton on us, and like they say about the lucky rattler and the horny toad it was of course Big Bill who was the hangin judge, saving Fitzpacker a lynching because it was next day injuns came, injuns came first and then whilst Fitzpacker organized the defense of the town in from the other side come Murriata and his gang and cleaned out the bank and emptied the jail which was only holdin a couple drifters had insulted Big Bill Grampus over to the Gold Mine. You remember that kind of thing in detail if you make a home of a place, for it was that and only that—remember Grampus and Big Bill Overdew both stuck their heads up over the basin at the wrong time and got arrows right through the skull, I saw the one got Grampus come straight out the back of his head—so the town goverment right there lost sixty percent of its legislature body plus one in the live form of Bill Hyde who was not to be found hair of after the goldless dust had settled and so the damn fool idea of changing the name from Hangtown to Billtown died with it, and the meetin was next day and you know how it is when you have to think of a word right then and there, that paralysizing struck the whole town meetin, which is why we ended up with Placerville, which ain’t so bad if it weren’t such a bad joke so quick, n not one to go about myself I got rifleshot while I was tending to Big Bill and felt it in my leg like a ramming antler (I say leg, but rather up where the whole thing begins to crack like a bloody waterfall I was never afraid of the dark but in the rapid bloody rapids in a shoe a pinniped in a shoe I don’t know how to use flippers it was all I could do to keep in the shoe was good injun leather but good thing is flippers is attached you don’t have em pult by waterdevils and sit thar watching them Harbinger away yer life, though the shoe was well sewed and I don’t know if I’d got past the worst of it when I fall asleep but somehow I knew I was goin u make it.
William Festus Fitzpacker returned from his recent venture into California this week, our sources have revealed. Sheriff Fitzpacker again would not reveal the nature of his mission, which some had speculated before his departure involved the dissolution of a certain San Francisco bank into which he had the misfortune of having deposited the fruits of many years of labor. As you recall, our intrepid reporter, Lancet Mudhen, who left behind a sister who remains among us, Miss Florrie Mudhen, now returned to the cities of the Eastern shores, was set upon by the good Mister Fitzpacker on the main street of Virginia City during that interview, emerging with two eyes entirely shut by swelling, and several broken ribs, apologizing profusely for the indelicacy of his assertive questioning right up to the moment his ribs had healed stageworthy. Fortunately, our correspondents did on this the occasion of the lawman’s return manage to interview his confidant, town farrier, plover, and blacksmith Frank Hall, who when he chanced to speak with Mr. Fitzpacker in the Truckee Tavern did have the opportunity to ask after his quest for equalizing matters vis a vis the coward Tom Gravel, at which, we quote the quote of Sheriff Fitzpacker, ‘I am satisfied,’ which we invite our readers to understand as they will.
William Fortsworth Fitzpacker, son of Rory Fitzpacker, later come to fame as William Festus Fitzpacker, first lawman of the territory of Nevada, Indian fighter, veteran of the war with Mexico, survivor of 32 wounds, killer of the dread outlaw Joaquin Murriata, is of interest primarily—at the moment—for his counter migration: that is to say that he was a man of the west who went east to come west, first leaving the Oregon territory in 1845 in the company of the famed horsefilcher, miner, Indian killer, bounty hunter, botanist, and scout Pegleg Smith, whom he met up with in Idaho territory for to travel south where the English did, to join the Taos beaver annihilators, though Fitzpacker’s time amongst the least of the mountain men was short as a New Mexico beaver, for he soon set out to learn the martial ways of those wild new white men who went by the name Texans. From Galveston Island to the Staked Plains, from the Rio Rojo to the Great River, a breed of no nonsense settlers, among them homesteaders, ranchers, murderers, thieves, bowie-knifers, antisocials, Protestants, rickety short-lived infants, hairtriggers, frontiersmen, cuckolds, deliriots, alcoholics, wanderers, antsypantsers, lawmen, sawed-off backshooters, men with fingers like potatoes (Winchesters were their gun), hydrocephaloids, merchants, horsemen, evangelists, cyclopean ruffians, ruffians, barfighters, Romans, bufflers, riverboat renegades, diplomats, the goitered, noctambular misanthropes, Czechs, rapists, booklearned cardsharps, hangmen, opportunists, pregnant teens, negroes, tired Indians, homespun philosophers, kids with no more sense than a fence post, runaway sailors, sawboners, the lymes diseased, hags, dwarves, prostitutes, wagoneers, settlers, sheepmen, cowboys, dogfuckers, coonkillers, warmongers all, you could see it even in the dying infant, the lust for landgrab, the succubi of hate in need of host, eyes vacant as distance, alive as bushwhackers in the landfolds. History relates which and what survived, though little is elaborated vis a vis the Texas joke, the vast territories of Mexico they never wanted that became the provinces of pisspots full of perverts, not to elaborate further than to clarify that a native Texan—not to say a Mexican, not at all, not to say, worse yet, a Comanche, not at all–would prefer a New Mexico and Arizona of Apaches raiding cross borders than a grand canyon in the shadow of Mormons and spineless, louche assgrabbers, a bad joke at that as time grinded, grinding, ground and grinded on, and the same grunting country became more and more of the same groaning country until the air got closer than a tiny shed full of pork and bean farting ranch hands, and the native Texan came to prefer the Mexican and Vietnamese to the them what they was told were like them, like them, and the shootings have never stopped, never will stop, and so there is hope, so there is a winged future to convey to a dying infant, vague visions of dead moths neath a streetlight at dawn, O! hope be not squandered lonesome!
Gold is what I mean to say. Fitzpacker did indeed fight Mexicans and Apaches, but it was gold that brought him west again, for he was young and did not like the smell of dust, the taste of cactus juice, the arrows slung and the horsey dung, and the mites and the bees and the scorpions, and the miles without cunt, and the smell of men, and the sound of fear, and the bold charge into fate fecund and fat with punctures unplanned and pregnant with verisimilitude of dread and drear daydream of man all alike and wrought with reason, and the blonde boy gut shot Shut yer fuckin shatpup noisehole of course yer fuckin cold yer gutshot and worst than the whimpering the screaming and the crack of the gun butt caving in the blonde boy’s skull and the lieutenant from what he referred to as an academy who used the phrase military bonton and martial courts and yet that shatpup too whimpered, too screamed from his facehole, and he too needed his skull caved in by a gun butt, and neither dead soldier had a scrah of tabacky, so he took their water and horses and guns and made for Santa Fe, the war as good as won anyway, and found in Santa Fe a trace of Pegleg, a sniff of old Bob Carson, the two gone west for gold was struck, and it was a well worn trail he followed, grubstuck selling the horses and one of the guns and a few horses from wandering Paiutes who weren’t supposed to have them anyway and if he hadn’t shot the lot of them it would have been more whimpering and screaming, and all that could be sold up by the Truckee for passage and stake, but before he knew it that giant Bill in Hangtown made of him a legend and as a military man, a big man who knew how to handle a pistol and lead men against savages, for over on the other side of the Sierras men were need to guard the desert trail from the Injuns, William Festus Fitzpacker was a Nevada legend, first elected territorial lawman of Nevada and owner of piece of land by a stream that yielded twenty dollars a day if a man worked it. You think Fitzpacker worked it?
While the condition cold is not subjective, while temperature is so connivingly measurable that mankind continues to express this factor of the air in two different ways, yet an oddity that nears the stature of paradox persists regarding the suffering of extremes, particularly the extreme of cold. Bear witness:
I swear to you tho it make no sense that night in jail in Hangtown was the coldest I ever been and it bein midsummer and you and me having been and I thought this many a time through the long waking night in that igloo we made, the thought of whichall made me colder still I hope you can understand that without you take offense.
Our young Donnie Garvin would recall Fernand Braudel discussing just such a near paradox in regard to the Mediterranean regions, where, for instance, inner and upper Spain in winter feels to its denizen as cold as a tundra’s wolf woofing winter night.
I knew it would be harder for Rance to bear up under the circumstances, as he is given to volatile (see? I remember some things you taught me) emotions at times and he was mighty scared to be jailed in a town known for hangin. And if that were not all the blanket was about as heavy as a chicken feather.
I knew it would be harder for Rance to bear up under the circumstances, as he is given to volatile (see? I remember some things you taught me) emotions at times and he was mighty scary to be jailed in a town known for hangin. And if that were not all the blanket was about as heavy as a chicken feather by which I mean light, maybe I should say lighter than a floating turd, he was near sterical come morn. I hugged and rubbed and warmed Rance no one give us coffee nor grub and he shook an cried and tho I myself thought we were soon to be hung I give him comfort of lies til he fell asleep agin like a babe in my arms and not at that moment but now I think of our baby by now come out to see us when you bring him which I hope will be soon, tomorrow Rance take me to our claim. As I was tellin, he was a sleep like a babe in my arms and with no reckoning the cold or night was the high heat of day and gunshots rung out ever which direction. This maybe gone on for a half hour before I hear yelling they robbed the bank, which was right cross the street from out hotel into which come like a devil from heaven a very dark of skin Mexican fierce lookin like a grieved wolf with a scar that run from his eyes to his ear which was part missin and he ask which is my guns an I pointed to the old hoggyleg he give it to me his men taking the rest of what was in supply, and he unlocked the door and they went out but before he left as if he forget something of great import he turned back stepped to me and I am not joking he bowed kind of stiff, give me his hand to shake and said, I mean not to be rude but as you may see we are in a mite hurry, I am Wakeen, I said, Tom Gravel and he was gone and for some fifteen minutes more there was shootin, and Rance was alivened up by then, we found two horses with no one tached to them retrieved what was left of our gear including the last of my money which the law of Hangtown did not find and made haste the other way from the shootin and found a trail that went up into the Sierra mountains.
Upon reaching Gold Canyon, Rance Hardupp and Tom Gravel staked their claim, or Hardupp’s claim, which was a couple weeks from running out as it had not been worked for more than five months; they staked their claim literally, pounding sharpened cottonwood saplings into the ground every ten feet and tying rope from post to post, from the stream back into the mature cottonwoods, a good quarter mile, and then again upstream the same, and behind enclosing a copse of their own. Hardupp’s scant supplies had been locked into a rudimentary shed that had been broken into and robbed of every last nail and pan, and what Rance said was anyway a near useless rocker he had made himself, and which was why Gravel was required to buy another one at the trading station down toward Carson Valley at Mormon Station, a brand new one Rance insisted on testing to a point beyond the exasperation of a red-haired vendor of such who worked out of a tent alongside the trail, which was empty as far either way as a man could see yet sold his wares in the brisk manner of a an up and comer and spoke with the cadence of a slow starting engine: ‘Yer…yer…yer…yer…yer…gonnabreakthatthingnthenallavetapayfrit.’ Rance pronounced the mechanism fit and more than fit, later confiding to Tom that it was as well put together as any he had ever seen.
As far as Tom could see, this crude yokel Rance Hardupp had concocted a plan that verged on genius. They were stationed on the east side of the Carson, which they would work for gold, but he had also and primarily staked a claim to a mile long length of the intermittent feeder stream known as the Dry Muddy, which was where the more spectacular finds had been. Ah, but gold is a fiendish bedrockfellow, and a man can’t pan a dry stream. Some years spring runoff doesn’t fill the Dry Muddy. But you had to figure wherever the Carson flowed it gathered some of the same minerals as the Dry Muddy when wet, and further, if a feller had a claim on the Carson and the Dry Muddy both, when the Dry Muddy was dry, or muddy, he could load up a wagon with a hand-shoveled load or lode and rocker it back at the Carson, a mere three miles away, and if one had a partner, the work could pert near go on perpetual like, in cycles or whatnot or whatever.
Thus did the partners proceed after constructing a small wood sleeping shed back in the cottonwoods on the east and near barren of folk side of the Carson, this one with a secure metal lock as big as a fist, though in truth a big enough first could probably have pounded through the wood of the door, and as we know today them was lawless times, yet Tom has his hogleg and curiosity was some ways yet from shedding the shards of its peril. Furthermore, the Carson heaved hard east thereabouts, which tended to rile more silt on their side of it, while at the same time, Hardupp had found a stretch of the Dry Muddy that was a virtual mini-canyon, awkward to work for a stretch of 100 yards or so, having no bank to speak of and narrow enough to prevent two men walking side to side within its confines.
All in all, a fine plan effected, efficiency the watchword, a clumsy pioneering efficiency of fugatory efficacy, if not prophetic of funge, neither feeble. Yet the nights are chill—in the morning they take unthinking comfort in proximity, not only to the cookfire that boils their coffee, refries their beans, but even more to each human other, so that more often than not they set off together up the Dry Muddy, the horse with its wagon, working, and they, after arriving to their claim, take up surveyance, engaging in rudimentary geologic discussion, determining that spot, random despite, taking turns with the shovel. Rest is taken in the relative boscosity of sparse undergrowth between two cottonwoods that split the sunshine, bread and water passed back and forth. No birds sound. Snakes sleep in their hollows, within the drythorned fraggus plants. Lizards dash out silent inscrutable spurts of lives unexamined.
‘Reckon we keep loadin or go back and run through what we got?’
‘Don’t know, Tom. Ain’t too eager to larn what we got is a wagon full a dirt, which I already know.’
‘What’s gold but a shiny spak a dirt?’
A pause for thought as prurient doubt hung along the time lull of the long bright day.
‘Them Mormons sayin we bein on the wrong side…’
‘Jis tryin to run us heathen off with that what the red face one said…’
‘”They’s fekkin goldconder yonder!”’
‘Pointin as if over the range…’
Hoof aclop desert rock cancels silence, for here one hears fer near a mile yon such, and there did approach astride horse sheriff lawman William F. Fitzpacker, no Mormon he, though like as Mormon in lust fer mammon, specially now that slaves worked his claim, as he saw it, even if the workmen themselves, Hardupp and Gravel spied neither mammon nor master, were masters in thought of their own leechy seekings, much more mundane than mammon, beans being their manna.
‘Tis some visitor,’ Rance muttered.
Attenuate anticipatory silence ensued, desertified, draftless, dry as the sun.
Perhaps one hoof was three miles off.
Gravel and Hardupp lounged attentive.
Four hooves sounded like two, one betimes precipitate, slapping odd like a wingshot bird.
Closer now, the hooves hesitated between hypnotic clops.
Twin apparitions preceded the horseman, such is mind in desert time.
The horseman appeared black, back to the sun, on a black horse, black through, it seemed, and he from equestrian statue grandeur gazed down at the two men, naked to the waste, dried dust on dried sweat thick as shirts above the waist, a superior position for one who would grant himself hierarchy, as this man of greed and violence did.
‘Boys,’ he greeted them.
‘I’s thank ye fer working my claim, but looks to me like you’re shoveling dry dirt into a wagon and I don’t right see how that brings me benefit.’
Rance looked at Tom, then sprang to his feet.
‘This here’s my claim, mister.’
‘Yes, son, settle yerself, I heard down at the Station how two upstarts had encroached upon my investment. That’s why I took the trouble to make me some inquired about you two. I stopped in at your homestead first, of course, and finding the door poorly locked took a look around, but as you know you were not there to receive me, so I took it upon myself to ride all the way out there in this heat. You can see what the sweat’s done to my shirt.’
Tom slowly got to his feet.
‘What is it you want?’
‘Like everybody else around here. Gold. Silver. The spoils of the earth.’
‘I hope you ain’t suggesting you tramped into our abode.’
‘Abode. Abode? Is that what ye call it. Yer abode? Why anyone can see it’s but a shack badly shackled. One shot and the look unlocked. It’s a way we have of knocking on the door of claim jumpers hereabouts.’
The first marshal of Nevada territory did not wear a badge, or Rance would not have made the mistake of telling Fitzpacker he would have the law on him.
‘Why, son, I am the law. Marshal William Festus Fitzpacker by name. Hired out to keep order, and that order bein to tend to claim jumpers and other such of the lawless breed.’
‘My claim’s good, mister—both a them.’
‘I got six months logged without presence here.’
‘That’s a outright lie, Marshall or no Marshall. I was gone but a week over four months. I was off raisin capital as you call it.’
‘Each to his own calendar, son, but my calendar happens to be law. And worse for you, the next claim up is my own, meaning this one as well, for what you have here is the windblown, and torrent tossed of my own whilst I awaited spring run.’
‘You lie mister!’ Rance shouted, and began forward, whereat Gravel gripped his pants top to hold him back. ‘We’ll take this to the law hereabouts and beyond if need be.’
Fitzpacker laughed heartily, part genuine.
‘Truer word never did I speak, fool. I am the law! Yet I am not unfamiliar with the calculus of slavery, and find it not to my fiscal advantage. You shall continue to work my land, and as we are three so shall we divide the unspoilt, in thirds. One third to you, for labor, and two of those thirds to me for investment, right neath the umbrella of law.’
‘You will get not so much as a nugget from my claim!’
‘You, son. A calmer sort, where be ye from?’ observing Gravel’s quieter response and fiercened eyes.
Silence: squeezed, pulsing, nothing of the desert. Silence of civilization away off on the march.
‘Speak now, boy, for I will have all knowledge in due time.’
‘Best you go back there…But you will not. You take your own counsel, that is your type. You will soon have cause to remember my words: Go…back…there! For you have a half brain, unlike your colleague in scampery, this befuddled, blinded by—‘
‘Why you scumsuckin pig, git down off yer horse an see who’s what!’
Gravel, almost in a whisper: ‘Settle down for now, Rance.’
‘Dismount of my horse would be the mount of your death-horse, trespassing claim jumper. Be thankful to whichever your ill-conceived deity I not dismount, rather come with kind warning.’
One sees the rattler in disguise in retrospect after the strike: thus did the pistol uncoil from Fitzpacker’s side holster and discharge between the feet of Tom Gravel, a statue next to Hardupp, an alit marionette.
‘I take not kindly to insult, Rancid Hardupp, the second I happen to know [deliberate ambiguity, this man of careful speech]. Now you got right on the edge. Make mention like again and I shall tear thy arms from thy torso. But it is you, half-brain’—turning now to Gravel, as he returned his pistol to its rest pouch—‘who most must heed’—the same hand reaching further down, unflapping saddle bag, retrieving a Colt Peterson, long travelled—‘if this be the cause for your quietude, take extra heed, for now tis mine, an insult tax, a land tax, a claim jumper tax, and, of no minor incident, a pistol I have long coveted…’
Nothing altered in the outer mien of Tom Gravel, though the universe he sensed to convulse.
‘…and shall now be one with my living legend. My excitement is such that I am near to the point of thanking you, though it be clear you had better remained in your Ore-egon.’
The worst of men are as good as their word. Some of the best of the men remain at variance with the world of words. Thus did Fitzpacker in some weeks make good and be successful on his claim to claim, visiting Rance and Tom at their many locked abode after first enquiring of witnesses to the effect of their successes, rumor and testimony determining a rate of near ten dollar a day. And near seven dollar a day did Fitzpacker extract from the humiliated, behumbled soil toilers, for fiery Rance and becalmed temperate Tom were but biding their time, for reasons obvious enough and further, for recent handbills had been tree-posted announcing a spectacle at the trading post of Neverworth Rodney Haskill and Washington Loomis, not half a mile from their abode at what might seem the mouth of Gold Canyon, or afore where the Dry Muddy wetted its desert tongue in the Carson. Seems the famed gunsman lawman William Festus Fitzpacker would be displaying his pistolarian dexterity for the public at one quarter per head, later to offer lessons as well for a dollar only.
Twas a Sunday. More than 19 workers of prospect, including one female, arrived. Haskell and Loomis had erected a lean-to for shade, and on that table served cool drinks of fresh Carson River water and various eatables. Rance Hardupp and Tom Gravel were among the spectators as Marshall Fitzpacker drew up at high noon, precisely on time, atop his black horse, sporting a vest backed in red satin with elaborate silk stitched on cotton design up front, painted nacre buttons, along with pin striped pants and a collarless white cotton shirt. He did look sharp. Haskell and Loomis had taken great pains to entertain, fashioning a life size man of wood, painted red once and white over that red, so that a bullet would appear to bleed (this did not entirely succeed, as the bullets mostly spat interior, unpainted wood debris). The white wood man was nailed to a mature cottonwood tree, the nail heads twice painted as well.
Fitzpacker wasted no time getting started–cutting short the incipient barkering of Haskell, he dismounted and seemingly in flight shot two eye holes in the wood man. One showed a trace of red if you looked close. He appeared to have drawn a Colt Walker, an awkward piece that brings to mind a homestead afterthought to keep granny at bay, though the aberrational eyesore is between the cylinder and the barrel. Perhaps only Tom Gravel gave that much thought, for Fitzpacker commenced to approach the unarmed wood feller, come face to face with him, walk away from insult, and turn rapidly, withdrawing with his same right hand cross to his left holster, from which he pulled Gravel’s Colt Paterson and with five shots drew a straight mouthline beneath the eyes.
Much clapping ensued. Rance Hardupp yippeed and jumped up and down. Gravel clapped politely.
Gravel noticed that as now Haskell was allowed to speak—‘How’s that ladies and gentleminers? Ready for a more impressive display?—Yeehaw! they were—Fitzpacker reloaded both pistols, before firing from about twenty paces, carving a perfect heart on the upper left breast of the white woody man, a heart true, a heart yielding fragments of wood framed by a trace of red and a heart-frame of white.
Who knew what was next?
‘Hows bout a pecker shot!’ one enthusiast suggested, for example.
Gravel decided not to wait. As Fitzpacker reached into his saddlebag to find reload for the Colt Walker, he come up behind, drew his own Colt Paterson, and before he could stand Fitzpacker down saw that Fitzpacker intended to dispatch him with whatever rounds had been established in the cylinder of the Walker. Gravel’s first shot hit Fitzpacker’s right shoulder, turning him around, and when Fitzpacker showed sign to turn back emptied the four remaining shots into the lawman’s upper torso, took quickly to flight, hopped his horse, tied to a sapling but ten feet or so from the site of the shooting, and, well, went to Mexico, or what was now not so Mexico anymore, but California, though he sought there the famous Mexican, though some said Chilean, Joaquin Murriata, and the trip was not without exhaustion, hunger, cold nights, and sleepless moments visited by gutwrenching longing for Marie Fire and the child that was surely by now borne.
Gravel found Murriata while drinking from a stream outside French Camp, where inquiries had led him to look for the legendary outlaw. Better said, of course, Murriata found him, an anticipated stranger with this danger, scar-faced outlaw in his sights. Gravel recognized the reflection in the water to be one of the men shootin up Hangtown not so long back. The wappling scar on the water surface suggested the man standing over him was Joaquin Murriata himself.
Gravel rolled to his back.
‘Tobacco.’ he said, and Murriata reached into a pocket and tossed a small cotton back tied by a string near the top to Gravel.
These too were forthcoming.
Once he had rolled and smoked the cigarette, Gravel was ready to talk.
‘Ever hear of a lawman name of Fitzpacker?’
‘I killed him.’
‘No, you did not.’
‘Yes, yes I did, senor Murriata, I surely did, shot him five times.’
‘Didn’t kill the bastard, boy. Heard all about it. Don’t know why you done it, but I sure as hell liked to hear of the effort. But he is still alive, on the mend at Mormon Station, and will be riding this way sooner or later come looking for you.’
Gravel couldn’t speak for shock, nor could he look with focus, nor raise his eyes above the level of Murriata’s knee beyond where he saw approach two black clad legs hip-holstered high up, legs horse-like in height, and hair fallen either side down past holsters, for it was a woman he saw, raising his eyes slowly, a woman with a stunningly cropped torso, a thin lipped, weathered face, with black animate eyes, flat or absent of aspect but archesporialtype, reductive, absolute in undisclosed purpose.
‘Senor,’ Gravel began, looking back up to Murriata, ‘though it were not yer intention, you and your gang sprung me and my pal from the hoosegow in Hangtown, and when I shot Fitzpacker figuring I’d be strung up I fled cross the mountains seeking to find you and join up. I can shoot pretty fair.’
‘Five shots without killing a man. Is that shooting pretty fair?’
‘Not a one missed the shitpig.’
‘What do you think, Louisa?’
‘Let me kill the bastard.’
The voice was like lead skimming off zinc, definitive. Gravel was sure his death was imminent, and that the bullet would be in the very center of his forehead.
‘Finish your cigarette,’ Murriata instructed Gravel, confirming the verdict.
Well, thought Gravel, nonetheless bemused, it was an idear.
‘I like that: Not one missed. And got off quick, too, is that right?’
‘Didn’t think about it. I just wanted my gun back, but he turned to fire and I got his right shoulder, and he was about to turn agin n I emptied the cylinder, got on my horse n left.’
‘What do you think, Louisa?’
‘Let me kill the bastard.’
Murriata thought that was funny. Gravel hoped so.
‘Louisa, if we take in this young man, you may just get your chance at that lawman. But we don’t turn away a man who shot a lawman, especially one who has come so far to find us.’
‘I will only warn you once about Louisa—never approach her or attempt to speak with her. Got it?’
‘Use your gun when I expect you to.’
And the following Spring, Fitzpacker, reconstituted, did come looking for Tom Gravel. He was not hard to find. Murriata and his gang hit mining town after mining town, robbing banks, big claim-holders, and lawmen, Gravel taking part as any hired gunman would, never firing a shot other than to send a bullet skyward to announce the intimidation of their arrival and the futility of resistance. Of course this scourge was not overlooked by the larger interests of the nascent state of California whose legislature hired a band of California Rangers (you won’t read much about this motley, nefarious crew) to hunt them down. They got Murriata and Three-fingered Jack in a tussle at an arroyo near Coalinga down south, chopping off Jack’s hand and Murriata’s head, news of which reached Murriata—and Jack—at French Camp, where they were taking ease between raids, when the jars were placed on exhibit in Stockton. Fitzpacker was said to be among the law gang, which was composed of former Texas Rangers. Of course, Fitzpacker knew a scam when he was in on it, and, after a brief return to the Nevada side returned in pursuit of Gravel, whom he found in a Stockton tavern in mid-August that year.
In the morning, Gravel noticed that Louisa wore her hair gathered into a horse tail, which always meant gunplay forthcoming, though he was not informed of the incipient showdown until the three—Jack was at the bar for distraction, amusement, and, if need be, an unlikely need, back up.
In the midst of a game of five card stud, Tom holding a pair of sevens and intent on taking the pot, Murriata said quietly, ‘Here comes your man;’ in strode Fitzpacker, gun already drawn. Gravel turned, assessed the moment, pulled his Colt, eyes met, Fitzpacker’s intent on murder, Gravel pulled, shot the gun out of Fitzpacker’s hand, the bullet creasing the thumb, bade him stand still, put two more bullets into the planking at his feet, told him he would live if he quit Nevada and Hardupp remained unharmed, to which Fitzpacker readily agreed, making to hasten away before being ordered still by Murriata, who extracted a more solemn promise, made to hasten away before Louisa bade him stop, rose from her chair, strode to him—Gravel was not surprised, though considered the vision likely illusory, that she stood taller than the lawman—and coldcocked him. Fitzpacker came to in the dirt street under the summer sun not far from his horse. A month later Tom Gravel was back at the claims with Rance Hardupp, who had built from their earnings a two story wood home with a circumambulate balcony on the ground floor, and sent for Marie Fire and child, instructing them to set out in the Spring to join him.
Legend has it that Fitzpacker, though he steered clear of Gold Canyon, did come and go between the general area of San Francisco and the ore banks of Nevada, alternating between gun work and mining, never making a fortune, but engaging in battle with Paitues and courtrooms, surviving to the year 1873 when he died in an asylum in Stockton, his head still attached to his neck, though it is said he survived 31 bullet wounds during his lifetime.
Tom Gravel was taken by influenza the winter after his return to Nevada. Marie Fire and Tom Junior arrived the following July oblivious, took up residence in the house of Rance Hardupp, and remained in Nevada.
The Vexing Vicissitudes of Realism
A stroke of good fortune for our account is the disappearance of the Fitzpacker line, for William Festus Fitzpacker left no heir, no bastard, no fortune to be fraudulently claimed by the mulatto child of a white mistress, and thus the reader—and writer!—may drop guard, may cease anticipating with that peculiar combination of dread and glee the return of family intertwined conflict, may no longer need envision a Gravel generations hence in the shit ditches of Verdun, say, without knowing, just knowing, that Colonel Fitzpacker will appear to order Gravel out of the turdous trench into the sheer wall of German bullets, that his son, Judge Fitzpacker, will not plant papers in a pumpkin on the property of the playwright Gravel, call the gendarmes, who will find the secret papers, proof enough of treason, the communist Gravel condemned thus to the gallows, after giving birth to yet another Gravel who will, in full furious fit of fate come face to face with the evil murderer Colin Fitzpacker in Elko, Nevada, on the night of a rare and ferocious hailstorm to waylay him on his way to check the gate of the sheep pen, returning to the homestead to slaughter the rest of the family, he is sure, while the eldest child inexplicably overlooked, the quiet one, little Tom who didn’t say his first word until he was nine years old, though he would have been but four at the time of the gruesome events described herein—but now only, not later–so that it could never be determined whether witnessing the bloodletting contributed to his condition, his slowness, such quadriver of event contriving to deprive the townfolk of gusto for gossip, nay, responsible for the letting down of their guard, and so the rape, the pregnancy, the hanging of, say it, a retard, all this prevented by the joie de vivre lacking in the spermatozoa of William Festus Fitzpacker.