Published on Monday, April 30, 2012
Gambler & Gravedigger
By Alex Watson
The stagecoach lay across the road, wheels mired in the ditch, axles snapped from trying to wrench it free. Tack and harnass hung empty and torn from where the horses had broken and bolted. The driver was nearby, laid out on the hardpacked earth, collecting flies, neck twisted at an unnatural angle.
Against that backdrop, Evans' pressed suit and silk tie stood out even more than they had in the rough-and-tumble Dunn's Crossing saloon up the road.
"Hello there!" Evans cried, approaching the stage with small and well-measured steps. "I'm Dr. Daniel Evans, Esquire. Faro dealer, card player, gentleman of fortune."
As Evans drew closer, he picked out the shape of a man in the darkened interior of the stage: long hair wild and graying, duster and bandanna like one of the cattle hands in town. The clearest thing about him was the massive revolver clenched in one hand.
"Name's Perkins." The revolver bobbed as its owner spoke. "Gotta say, I expected another whore-born hayseed wearing a deputy's star, not a dirty-dealing card shark."
"Now, I run an honest faro bank, good sir." Evans flashed his best ten-dollar smile. "Stake my reputation on it, and I'm known from here to Prosperity Falls."
"Hmph," Perkins snorted. "That might be enough for the hardtack types around here, but I've read my Hoyle's. Says there ain't an honest faro bank from ocean to ocean and I'm apt to agree. Now get before I give you what I gave the sheriff."
"You wouldn't shoot an unarmed man in broad daylight, would you, Mr. Perkins?" Evans said. He kept smiling even as he eased his way closer to the stagecoach. "Most assuredly, I'm not worth the cost of a cartridge. Instead, we'd best get your conveyance moving."
"Hah! Slippery one, ain't you, Dr. Daniel Evans, Esquire?" Perkins growled Evan's full name with an affected East Coast nasal twang. "Gonna walk right up and push it?"
"Manual labor was never my strong suit, thanks to my phlegmatic temperament."
"Them white hands ain't dirtied themselves with an honest day's labor in many a blue moon. But the cart ain't the problem, Dr. Daniel Evans, Esquire." Perkins said. "It's the man inside. I bet that dirt-farming sheriff sent you out, and damn if I'm not curious why."
"I was in the saloon, plying my trade, when your sheriff came and described this predicament: a hostage situation with neither rhyme nor reason." Evans eased forward, keeping eyes on Perkins.
"I told him it was tragic, lamentable," said Evans. "My heart went out to the lass, so harshly treated in the flower of youth by the roughened hand of the hoi polloi. Said 'twas a symbol of our age's degradation." He paused. "Also asked why the devil I should care."
Perkins' eyes shone in the dark. "Why do you?"
"I don't," Evans said. "You can stay in there forever and raise a family, shoot the lass, or fly to the moon, far as I'm concerned. Civic virtue's not my strength."
"Getting ridden out of town on a rail'll do that to you," said Perkins.
"To say nothing of tarring and feathering."
The hostage-taker laughed. "Been there, sure as a coyote shits in the grass. Now answer my question."
Evans was much closer, enough to see the frightened young woman beside Perkins. Couldn't have been more than sixteen, and was gagged with her own Sunday bonnet. "Sheriff said a silver-tongue like me was what a mess like this needed. If shooting irons were forcibly unloaded, well... no great loss to the community. I said that if the vox populi for that fair polis asserted my skills matched the gravity of the undertaking, then certainly I'd assist."
"You dumped all your best words on him, yet here you are–creeping up on me like I was born yesterday. Something like that's liable to make this road agent empty chambers without thinking."
The gambler nimbly jumped back a pace. "Fair enough. But you can drop the charade: you're no mere road agent."
"How do you know?" Perkins demanded. His pistol was leveled squarely at Evans' chest. "Bet there's an empty spot in the churchyard next to the last fella who came cheating through these parts. You keep up like this, odds are almost as bad as your crooked faro deck."
"Come, gentle sir," Evans said. "That's a Merwin Hulbert revolver you're holding. Hand-assembled, every one of them; fit and finish that makes Sam Colt's pieces look slapped together by blind Chinamen. A fine piece for a gentleman who knows his craft."
"That's right," Perkins said, a touch of surprise in his voice. "Twist action lets you spit out only empty brass while leaving your live rounds in-cylinder. Colt'll make you pop 'em out one by one and a Schofield chucks 'em all whether they're hot or not."
"Very important for someone who doesn't need more than a shot or two–and that's even without your mention of a book, something your road agents tear up in the outhouse. Clearly not some penny-ante shootist."
Perkins sighed. "Now, I ain't gunned you down yet since you're out where I can get a clean shot." The barrel of his Merwin Hulbert traced a small circle in the air. "But even though I may not go by 'Gravedigger' Perkins anymore, I'm not afraid to fill six feet of earth with them that deserve it."
"Ah, now that is interesting," said Evans. "Gravedigger Perkins, who worked for the Dunn's Crossing cattle barons during the range wars? Always thought that was a nom de guerre cooked up by penny dreadful writers."
"You've never cracked skulls for hire only to be turned out on your ass when the questions start. Lot of people would like to give me a lead present for the trouble I caused their families when the range was being fenced up."
"I've been chased and harassed on account of my avocation, just the same," said Evans. "There's a train of men I've cheated that'd stretch to Prosperity Falls."
"What would you do, riding in a stage, when the horses spook and there's an accident?" Perkins cried. "Driver gets his neck broke on account of his own stupidity right in front of a deputy's rig and there's sure to be questions and lawmen and your face just might be soaking up sun on the wall of their two-brick jail?"
"Might just panic," Evans said. "Find myself, mea culpa, in the situation I'd been running from–holed up and surrounded by the law. Like that time, in Holyoke, when I was running faro and saw a detachment of cavalry come through. Packed up in a hurry, took to running... but that was what made them notice. Three weeks in a stockade and lost every cent to my name, to say nothing of what my former players did afterwards."
Perkins' eyes clouded, whether through tears or reminiscence Evans couldn't say. "Well, Dr. Daniel Evans, Esquire, you've silver-tongued your way in. What're we gonna to do?"
"Vita incerta, mors certissima–most certain thing in life is death. The way I see it, Mr. Perkins, you've got your choice of deaths before you. Go down irons blazing, maybe taking me, the lass, or a deputy with you. Give up; see the wrong end of a noose. Run, and I suppose there's a slim chance of a death in bed. In the end? Mors vincit omnia. Death always wins."
"Not in keeping with the notion of a range war bandit-for-hire, but I've given that a lot of thought," said Perkins, "if not in so many ten-dollar words. I decided it doesn't matter."
"It certainly does," said Evans, "as today might end with a Sharps cutting through both you and the pretty lady from a thousand yards. You've got a chance most men would kill for, Mr. Perkins: to write your own story's end."
The older man regarded Evans with steely eyes. "Always fancied it would be better if I didn't see it coming," he mused. "Seem to have an ace up your sleeve there, Dr. Evans. Maybe it's time you used it."
A quarter-mile up the road, the sheriff and deputies saw Evans and Perkins exchange a few more words. The gambler leaned in, arm outstretched as if offering a friendly handshake. There was a flash of silver, and a moment later two low-caliber pistol shots echoed across the plain. Evans returned to them not long after, leading the shell-shocked young hostage behind him. A two-shot derringer hung from one sleeve on a sling, still smoking, and the once-impeccable suit was besmirched with powder burns.
"Well done, son," the sheriff sneered, clapping Evans on the back. "The right snake for the right rat."
The gambler didn't reply; his face was stony, unreadable. He pulled the gun out of its sling and hurled it into the bushes. Then, ignoring the sheriff's confused expression or the mud rapidly accumulating on his fine shoes, Dr. Daniel Evans, Esquire began the long walk back to town.
Alex Watson, a native of Reed City Michigan, is a librarian at the J. D. Williams Library at the University of Mississippi. He is an active supporter of the Oxford Film Festival, a dedicated participant in National Novel Writing Month, and a semi-accomplished bicyclist. His works have been published by Title Goes Here, Indigo Rising, and the Midwest Literary Magazine.