The blissful tinkling of glass against glass, the gurgling of liquor rushing through bottlenecks, the clacking of plastic chips, the stench of liquor and burning tobacco, and, above all, the cacophonous din of boisterous customers, pervaded the atmosphere in Joe's bar in Clarkesville in Arizona.
It was nearing high noon and everyone in the bar was blissfully oblivious to the world at large. Very few people were out on the dusty main street; the sweltering heat had ensured it.
Sheriff Morris was in his chair, feet stretched on the table and Stetson pulled down over his eyes. His mild snore did not escape the ears of smiling Deputies Watson and Hubbard.
It all happened in minutes, literally, before anyone got wind of it.
A six-strong posse of horse riders stormed into the main street and halted in front of the edifice that passes for a Bank. While three of them, Kid, Chris and Billy, stood guard outside, the remaining three rushed into the Bank, all of them with their guns and rifles cocked and ready.
The few customers and bank staff were all lying face down on the floor with their hands clasped over their heads. One bandit, obviously the leader of the gang, was pacing the floor near the entrance with a Henry .45 Rifle in his hands. He deserved every letter of the sobriquet "crazy" Morgan. Another bandit, called Slim, stood on top of a counter, 'monitoring' the proceedings. The third one, Ramon, was busy hustling the cashier.
"Move your butt or you'll eat lead for lunch."
Ramon pushed the long barrel of his Colt into the layers of flab on the cashier's stomach. The cashier threw all the cash into a sack and handed it to Ramon.
"The safe, open the safe, you bastard," shouted Morgan pointing his rifle at the cashier.
Even as the cashier opened the safe and emptied its contents, wads of currency and jewellery, Morgan saw in his peripheral vision a slight movement on the floor. George Hamilton, the Manager of the bank was stealthily reaching for the small-calibre pistol concealed inside his boot.
The Bank reverberated with the loud report of Morgan's rifle. The bullet pierced the cranium. Next moment, the air was filled with red mist, fragments of bone, and brain matter. George Hamilton died even before he extricated the pistol.
"Crazy" Morgan laughed hysterically and shouted, "Told you, no tricks. Now, can we have some uninterrupted service, Mr. Cashier?"
He would have had to be either unconscious or dead if he had not woken up at the loud report of the Henry. Sheriff Morris was neither. For a man who seemed to be asleep just a few moments earlier, he jumped to his feet within seconds of the offensive sound. He was faster than his Deputies were. Without wasting precious moments looking at each other, the three of them ran onto the street with their hands on their holsters.
People had not even begun coming onto the street when the Sheriff and his Deputies saw the three bandits outside the Bank.
"Drop your guns," shouted Sheriff Morris, training his revolver on them.
Immediately, Kid, Chris and Billy pulled out their guns and started shooting at the officers. Loud neighing of horses and human screams rent the air. Bullets started flying and ricocheting all around. The lawmen of Clarkesville dived to cover behind the barbershop and hardware stores on the opposite side. The dive proved to be lucky for the Deputies. The Sheriff took one high on the left shoulder and lost consciousness. The bullet went through cleanly and exited at the back. The Deputies pulled The Sheriff to safety.
"Crazy" Morgan came out onto the street, with the crook of his arm around a woman's neck, his Smith & Wesson Schofield pressed against her temple. He shouted to the small crowd that gathered.
"Anybody moves, I'll blow her brain away." To his henchmen he said, "Let's go...let's go..."
"Nobody move. It's Claire, George Hamilton's wife," shouted Deputy Watson.
Moments later the bandits were galloping away from the town.
There was no category of crime that was not listed against "crazy" Morgan; armed robbery, dacoity, extortion, abduction, rape, and murder, he was wanted for every crime. There was a reward of a thousand dollars on his head, dead or alive, in four states, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico. An opium addict, he would be high on the narcotic when he was not committing a crime.
It was a dilapidated shanty deep inside the mountainous region east of the Grand Canyon and between Page and Tuba City. "Crazy" Morgan was lying anyhow on a rickety cot, high on opium. His henchmen were drinking and making merry with Claire Hamilton in their hideout, all but Kid, who was shot through the right thigh by the Sheriff Morris.
The screams of Claire Hamilton went unheard in that mountainous wilderness.
Even a few days after the heist and murder, Clarkesville had not come out of the shock. Sheriff Morris was nursing the injury to his shoulder. The town was on high alert. People were carrying guns even while walking in the streets with their families. The summer noon sun was beating down on the street. It was not a day to laze around in the open.
A lone horse, carrying a lone tall man, was slowly trotting into Clarkesville, oblivious to the scorching sun. It was of dark brown colour with patches of white on the face, ears, and ankles.
The rider was six-foot-four and athletic. He was in dusty brown pants. A dusty striped cape made of coarse cotton hung loosely on his shoulders. Smoke was curling up from a thin, long cigar stuck between his teeth. The rider halted in front of Sheriff's office.
"Whoa, whoa..." he patted the horse on its face and neck and tethered it to a hitching post. He threw away the cigar, spat on the ground, and climbed the few steps that led into Sheriff's office. The swing doors creaked as he pushed them in and entered.
"Sheriff..." he called.
Deputy Hubbard handed an enamel mug containing steaming black coffee to the stranger and sat at Sheriff's desk.
"Thanks." The stranger's voice was deep and resonant. He took his time and emptied the mug.
He thrust his hand into a battered leather bag and produced a thick roll of papers bound by twine. He spread the papers on the desk. They were all posters announcing rewards on the heads of criminals. The top one displayed a sketch of "crazy" Morgan and a message.
DEAD OR ALIVE
FOR MURDER, RAPE, DACOITY
AND OTHER CRIMES
The lawmen had no doubt about the contents of the remaining posters.
"You see, Sheriff, I'm already looking for him and his gang."
Sheriff Morris sighed. "No one knows his whereabouts or his hideout."
Watson and Hubbard nodded ruefully.
"I have some sources in Flagstaff," the stranger said.
"Need any help; men, horses, guns, or ammo?"
The stranger took a long puff from his cigar. "Maybe later. Right now, I need a bath, lunch and sleep; been riding for the last three days."
He got up, dusted his pants and cape, and walked out of the office.
"Come in, sir, come in. Long time, no see! The usual room?" The toothless grin on the face of Joe said that he was pleased to see the stranger.
The stranger tipped his Stetson and nodded.
"Rosie, take the gentleman to room #1. I'll bring some drinks, sir."
"I need a bath and lunch, Joe," the stranger said after Joe placed a whisky bottle and a glass tumbler on a bedside table. Joe nodded, looked at Rosie and discreetly withdrew from the room.
The stranger finished a refreshing hot-water bath in the tub, while Rosie scrubbed his back. He got into a fresh pair of trousers and shirt that Rosie laid neatly on the bed. What the lunch - a loaf of bread, omelette, boiled kidney beans in spicy tomato-garlic sauce, mashed potato, and beefsteak, accompanied by a bottle of red wine - lacked in taste was made up for in the speed with which it was served. The stranger lit a cigar and stretched on the bed, while Rosie cleaned up.
"Will there be anything else, mister?" Rosie asked suggestively.
The stranger smiled. "I'm tired and need to sleep, Rosie. Later, shall we say?"
Two days later, the stranger was in Gary's barbershop on the outskirts of Flagstaff.
"Shave and haircut, mister?" old Gary, the barber asked.
"Only shave, Gary. How have you been? Drinkin' again?"
"Swear on late missus; only beer; didn't touch hard stuff in a month," garrulous Gary assured and applied the sharp razor to the stranger's chin.
"Any news about 'crazy' Morgan?"
Gary stiffened for a moment and then continued with his work.
"I dunno nothing about 'crazy' Morgan, mister," Gary said sombrely.
Ignoring his half shaven chin the stranger pulled Gary by the collar to within an inch of his own face.
"Listen, old bastard, don't play games with me. Talk, quickly."
"I dunno..." The seven-an-a-half-inch barrel of a nickel-plated Colt Peacemaker with pearl grips precluded a repetition.
"Now, you wanna talk, Gary?"
Gary nodded as well as anyone with a gun barrel in his mouth could. The gun went back into its holster and the razor to the chin.
"Word is Morgan pulled off a bank heist coupla days ago in Clarkesville. One of his men was injured. They're holing up in the mountains."
"Where's their hole?"
"Dunno, mister. Morgan's man by name Slim frequently visits one of the 'girls' in town. He had a drink too many and shot off his mouth. The girl spoke to another customer and he told me when I was givin' him a shave."
"What's her name? Where can I find her?"
The stranger pushed her aside and barged into the room.
"Hey, mister..." Her protests were cut short by the sight of a gun that suddenly appeared in the stranger's hand. He drew a straight-back chair with his foot and sat on it.
"Kathy babe, you gotta answer coupla of questions."
"My friend here Mr. Colt." He pointed to the gun.
All her resolve melted into cold sweat on her forehead.
"What's in it for me, mister? Business time, you see."
"Slim was here a few days ago, wasn't he?" He gave her a ten-dollar note.
He saw her stiffen. "So, it is true, right?"
She had no option but to nod.
"What did he tell?"
"If I tell you, he'll kill me."
"If you don't, I will."
She fell silent for a minute. "Slim is regular here; comes once or twice a week. He was here coupla days ago. He had one drink too many and shot off his mouth. Four or five days ago, Morgan pulled off a bank heist in some town, 'Clark' something. One of the gang was hurt. They grabbed forty grand cash and fifty grand worth trinkets. That's all he told."
"Where's their hole?"
Kathy was visibly nervous. "I'm sure to die by his bullet."
"It's the least of my worries. Go on."
"Some abandoned shanty in the mountains; 'tween Page City and Tuba City, I think. I dunno nothing more, mister."
"Kathy baby, forget I was ever here, you'll live long."
"Well, mister, was your trip to Flagstaff fruitful?"
The stranger stretched his feet on Sheriff Morris's desk and took a long puff from his cigar. He spoke to the Sheriff about what he learnt.
"Their hole is in the mountains; a shanty abandoned long ago by someone. It's difficult terrain and not many live in the area."
The four of them discussed the matter for a long time.
"So, it's decided. We'll leave enough men at the outskirts of our search area. They'll keep watch, so that no one can enter or escape. The three of us will accompany you inside the area. More people will compromise the stealth. We'll carry enough food and ammo. OK?"
Deputies Watson and Hubbard nodded. The stranger bit off the tip of the cigar and spat it on the floor.
"OK, Sheriff. We leave at dawn. Gather and instruct your men. Meanwhile, I'll relax at Joe's."
Dawn saw a posse of ten men on horses leave Clarkesville. The rode for three hours and halted beside a small waterhole. While the horses were drinking water, someone lit a fire and brewed strong black coffee.
"Sheriff Morris, I spoke to some people in the town last night. Ray travels a lot selling dresses and other goods. He said he once took a wrong turn on this path and was lost in the mountains for a day. He was definite there is a path that leads into the mountains hereabouts." It was Greg, the gunsmith.
"Ray was. As per what he said, it must be within a few miles from here."
By noon, they found a narrow pathway, almost invisible in the thick growth of thorny shrubs. The Sheriff ordered six men to stay back and keep watch.
"Greg will lead the group. Split into three groups of two each and hide behind the trees and shrubs. Keep your eyes open and asses shut. Remember, you are dealing with a crazed criminal."
"OK, Sheriff," the six men murmured.
"A moment, Greg." The stranger drew Greg aside and spoke to him for a few minutes in a very low tone. Greg looked sombre and nodded several times.
"What's that all about, mister?"
"You'll know, Sheriff."
Sheriff Morris, Deputies Watson and Hubbard, and the stranger followed the narrow, thorn-strewn path on horseback for over an hour.
"Let's rest the horses for a while, Sheriff. Meanwhile we can eat lunch," the stranger said.
"Yeah, let's rest the horses and our asses, too."
They munched dried meat, while the horses rested.
Suddenly, the stranger signalled them to silence. "Shhh...I hear someone..."
They crouched behind the bushes and cajoled the horses into silence. They could clearly hear the slow clickety-clack of hooves. Within minutes, they saw a horse trotting very slowly, carrying a tired-looking rider. There were several large sacks hanging on either side of the animal.
Sheriff Morris whispered, "He's Ramon; probably carrying supplies."
The stranger nodded. "Let's give a few minutes and of follow him."
"Sheriff, I got a plan."
"What's it, mister?"
"We know 'crazy' Morgan has six men with him; could be more. The odds are against us, if not in shooting skills, at least in numbers, right?"
"Yeah, so? What are you driving at?"
"If we could reduce the odds, even by one, it would help, wouldn't it?"
"You mean, take Ramon down?"
The stranger nodded.
"Morgan will get suspicious if Ramon doesn't return."
"I'll take Ramon's place; horse, supplies and all," the stranger said sombrely.
A quarter-hour stealthy silent scurry through the bushes positioned the stranger and Deputy Hubbard about fifty feet ahead of Ramon, on either side of the path. The heat on the head and alcohol in the tummy seem to have had their effect on Ramon's senses and reflexes. The stranger and Hubbard let Ramon's horse cross them. When he was about six feet ahead, they quickly tiptoed behind him.
What followed happened in under a minute, literally.
The stranger leapt at Ramon, one hand covering his mouth and the crook of the second arm pinning his neck. Both fell to the ground. Ramon opened his mouth to scream but the barrel of the Colt inside in his mouth precluded any such suicidal intentions. Simultaneously, Hubbard reined in the fidgety, snorting horse, patting and cajoling it into silence.
"Take off your cape."
The underlying unissued threat in the stranger's menacing voice was not lost upon Ramon. He had seen and caused too many deaths to ignore it. Silently, he handed the cape to Deputy Hubbard.
What followed took Deputy Hubbard completely by surprise. The stranger hit Ramon on the face with a tightly clenched fist. Instantly, Ramon fell to the ground and started bleeding through the nose and mouth.
"What the hell!" Deputy Hubbard cursed.
The stranger pulled out a Bowie knife from his thigh sheath, clasped his left palm over a struggling Ramon's mouth and stabbed him in the heart. Ramon let out a sigh, the last of his life on the planet, and died.
"What the fuck have you done, man!" Hubbard pointed his pistol at the stranger.
"You wanna shoot, now's the time, buddy," the stranger did not even look at Hubbard while wiping his knife on Ramon's pants.
"Why did you do that?"
"Listen, you moron. These are dangerous men you are dealing with, not choirboys. They'd shoot you for less than the drop of a hat. We ain't gonna lug the bastard around. It would compromise our plan..."
"Dead or alive, right? So, shut the fuck up and help me load him on my horse."
Hubbard muttered under the breath, "Bloody maniac."
Minutes later Sheriff Morris and Deputy Watson joined them and Hubbard briefed the Sheriff. The body of Ramon was loaded on the stranger's horse. The stranger wore the hat and cape of Ramon and mounted his horse.
"We are quite deep into the area. Morgan's hole won't be too far; maybe half-an-hour's ride. Follow me; don't bump into my ass," the stranger said.
The stranger was wrong. The ride was close to an hour and a half. They moved silently and indefatigably through hostile terrain.
They exchanged glances and once again looked at the shanty, a mile away on higher ground. Thin grey smoke was billowing up through the chimney.
The Sheriff looked at his pocket watch.
"It's almost three o'clock. There's enough daylight left. Let's rest."
The stranger shook his head. "If we delay, the surprise will be lost; could cost us dearly. Let's move on."
"At least ten minutes, for the animals? They haven't had rest or a gulp of water in several hours, mister."
The stranger relented. "Awright, ten minutes. Let's drink some water, too."
Quarter mile away from the shanty, they securely tethered their horses and moved by foot.
"You see a gang member, shoot and shoot to kill. Don't give that drop-your-gun-or-I'll-shoot shit. Else, you'll be contemplating lead from inside a coffin. Don't shoot Claire. Got it?" The stranger could not have been more emphatic.
The Sheriff and his Deputies nodded vigorously.
They lay prostrate at the edge of the shrub cover with their rifles in hand. Next fifty feet of so was clear land. Beyond it was the shanty. The stranger, all of his six-foot-four-inch height, crouched and darted towards the front entrance - if it could be called an entrance - of the shanty. The Sheriff and Deputies, too, crawled a few inches towards the shanty.
The stranger straightened up and peeped inside the shanty through a crack in the door. He saw someone, obviously asleep, sitting on a chair with back towards the door, Stetson tilted forward, and rifle across the chest. In a corner, a dirty sheet completely covered 'someone' lying on a cot. Some empty liquor bottles lay strewn on the floor near the cot. Surprised at not finding more persons inside, the stranger signalled the lawmen by raising two fingers.
The stranger opened the door slowly, very slowly. Luckily, it did not creak.
He strode very carefully and very softly, not allowing the spurs to make any noise. He stood behind the chair and pointed the barrel of his rifle at the head of the person sitting. A moment later, Sheriff Morris stealthily stepped into the shanty. The stranger signalled towards the cot. The Sheriff stood beside the cot and trained his rifle on the sleeping person.
About to wake the sitting gangster, the stranger saw something odd between the Stetson and the back of the chair - long, blonde, blood-soaked hair. He understood. It was Claire Hamilton's dead body. The Sheriff checked underneath the sheet and found couple of pillows.
"It's a trap," the stranger shouted and dived to the floor. The Sheriff followed suit. All hell broke loose even before they hit the floor.
Gunfire broke out outside the shanty. A hail of bullets was hitting the walls, door and windows of the shanty. Shards of glass from windowpanes were flying around. The Deputies narrowly escaped by diving into the shanty.
"What the hell happened?" Hubbard screamed.
"It was a trap. They knew we were here and escaped," the Sheriff shouted.
They took positions near the windows.
"Sheriff, you thought you could take me?" 'Crazy' Morgan shouted.
"Drop your guns and come forward with hands on head, Morgan."
"Fat chance, Sheriff." Morgan let loose a volley of bullets.
Sheriff Morris returned fire.
At the other window Watson and Hubbard opened fire. Watsons's bullets hit Slim in the head. "Gotcha," Watson screamed in joy.
The stranger took careful aim with his Winchester and fired two shots. He heard a scream and saw Chris topple backward.
"Got one, Sheriff; probably Chris."
Sheriff fired rapidly with his rifle. He saw one of his bullets hit the already injured Kid in the chest.
"I got one, too."
In a reckless rush of misplaced bravado, Hubbard left his cover and stood up to get a better view of the gangsters in the shrubs. Immediately, a bullet from Morgan's rifle found its target in Hubbard's head. The air inside the confines of the shanty filled with red mist, bone fragments and brain matter. Hubbard lay dead in a pool of blood.
"No...Hubbard...no," Sheriff Morris screamed and tried to run to Hubbard. The stranger violently pulled the Sheriff down to the floor.
"Lie low, you moron. They'll blow your fucking head off."
He thrust his hand inside his jacket underneath the cape and produced a stick of dynamite. Coolly, he lit a cigar and put its tip to the fuse of the dynamite. It caught fire instantly with a hiss.
"Cover me." He ran out of the front door before the Sheriff could stop him.
The Sheriff and the Deputy opened covering fire and the gangsters' guns fell silent for a few moments. The stranger ran about twenty feet towards the shrubs, lobbed the dynamite stick towards the gangsters, and ran back to the relative safety of the shanty, all under half a minute.
The dynamite detonated with a loud bang, "Boom", tossing two screaming gangsters several feet into the air. They were dead before they hit the ground. The volley of bullets from the shrubs, although reduced, continued.
"There's couple more, Sheriff. Morgan is still alive." The stranger lit another dynamite stick and said, "Cover me."
Once again, he ran outside to lob the dynamite stick. The moment he stepped outside, he encountered a hail of bullets. Even as he chucked the dynamite, a bullet hit him in the right shoulder and he toppled to the ground. The dynamite did not reach the intended target but detonated not far away from the stranger. He fell to the ground dazed. 'Crazy' Morgan and Billy ran to him.
"Drop your guns, Sheriff or I'll kill him," 'Crazy' Morgan shouted, pointing his rifle to the head of the stricken stranger.
"Now, Sheriff." Morgan fired a warning shot in the air.
"No, Morgan, no," Sheriff Morgan shouted and threw his rifle outside. Deputy Watson followed suit.
"Come out with hands on your heads."
The Sheriff and the Deputy slowly walked out of the shanty.
"Thought you could take me in, you son of a bitch? Good bye."
'Crazy' Morgan trained his rifle on the Sheriff and squeezed the trigger.
Two shots were heard. Neither of them was from Morgan's rifle.
The first one took Billy in the back, went through the heart and exited at the front. The shooter slowly moved forward into full view of everyone.
"What the hell are you doing here, Greg?" Sheriff Morris looked surprised.
The source of the second shot was a greater surprise for him. It came from the seven-and-a-half inch nickel-plated barrel of a Colt Peacemaker with pearl grips. It hit "crazy" Morgan in the throat and exited at the top of the cranium. He was dead before he slumped to the ground in grotesque slow motion. His index finger involuntarily completed the squeezing action it began a few moments earlier. The bullet wasted itself by hitting the turf at his feet.
Clarkesville people gathered near the Sheriff's office eagerly. Some people helped them dismount, others laid the dead on the roadside and yet others took the tired horses to a wooden watering trough.
"Get the doctor," Sheriff Morris ordered as he entered his office with Watson and the stranger.
"What the hell were you doing there, Greg? You were supposed to be on watch."
Greg looked at the stranger and the stranger explained.
"I asked him to follow us. Morgan was a cunning fox. I expected trouble. It was useful, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, yeah." The Sheriff lifted his whiskey glass and toasted. "To Hubbard."
They all said in chorus, "To Hubbard."
The stranger mumbled, "A moron till the end. Sorry about him and Claire."
A few days later...
"Can't you stay, mister?" Rosie was helping the stranger put on his dress.
"Gotta go, Rosie. I ain't the sedentary type."
"Will miss you." She kissed him passionately.
"Be seeing you, Rosie. Take care."
"Sure you won't reconsider my offer, mister? Clarkesville needs you."
The stranger received the reward money but declined the Deputy's badge.
"You got a good man in Watson. There must be others. Moreover, I still have a bunch of posters with me."
"Sorry to see you go, mister," Deputy Watson rued.
"Will come back someday, Watson. Until then..."
The stranger mounted his horse and kneed it gently.
"Hey, mister, we don't know your name!" Sheriff Morgan called from behind.
The stranger smiled.
"J. C. Cooper."
The horse galloped away from Clarkesville.
...Shyam Sundar Bulusu
It is needless to say that all characters and situations portrayed in this story are fictitious and that any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Clarkesville, too, is a fictitious town, set in Arizona. However, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Page, Tuba City, and Flagstaff are real.
I, like many of my generation the world over, grew up on the Westerns of legendary heroes, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Gary Cooper. Through my little mischief, John Clint Cooper, I pay my sincere tributes to them for the unadulterated entertainment, excitement, and fun they brought to the silver screen.