"Oh boy!" Billy yelped happily in my ear. "What'd I tell you!"
Back down the dusty street, past where our fellow passengers scurried wildly for doorways like panicked sheep, a man I'd never seen before in all my seventeen years raised his rifle to his buckskinned shoulder and fired again. At me!
"C'mon!" Billy shouted, grabbing my arm. We hightailed out of the middle of Rickety Fork's main street and hunkered down behind a water trough. I wished to heaven we'd stayed on the train. Horace Greeley was crazy!
Another shot and a woman screamed! I figured it was the young lady with the blue parasol. She'd got real excited in the coach this morning while Billy was entertaining everybody by telling the way "Two-Gun Bob" Jamison got shot. When Billy explained how the bullet came out right where "Two-Gun's" left eye had been, the lady nigh fainted.
The water trough was big as a coffin and about twice as high. I started to peep up over the edge, but another shot put me nose down in the dust. I was no hero. Last spring when a couple of my friends wanted to join the army and fight the Spanish in Cuba, I told 'em to count me out. I remembered the Maine my way -- in my prayers.
All of a sudden, Billy started cussing like a sailor. "Are you hit?" I asked, afraid to look.
"No! I stepped right in a mess o' road apples! Look at that!"
His shiny new boots showed they rode horses in Rickety Fork.
"Billy, why is that man shooting at me? I don't even know him."
Billy was on his haunches, trying without much success to scrape his boot in the dirt. "Probably never get the smell out," he said.
"Billy! Why's he shooting at me?"
A know-it-all smile spread across Billy's freckled face. "You greenhorn! He ain't shooting at you. He's shooting at them!" He pointed up the street at the saloon. There, peeking from doors and windows, I saw maybe a half dozen more men with rifles. As I looked, they started banging away at the fellow in buckskins down at the depot. "Shucks, boy, they don't even know you!" Billy laughed. His blue eyes flashed in excitement. "What did I tell you about Rickety Fork?"
He'd started in bending my ear about Rickety Fork almost from the minute he got on the train at St. Louis and sat down beside me. "Wildest little town in the whole Wild West!" he'd crowed. "We might see some real gunplay there, all right."
He was decked out in brown leather chaps and a neckerchief only slightly redder than the shock of unruly hair peeking from his snow white ten-gallon hat. A silver six-shooter rested trimly in the holster he wore low at the hip. I guessed him at eighteen, a year older than me, but a whole world wiser.
I'd never met a real cowboy before -- never even seen one except on the cover of a dime novel -- but I always thought they were supposed to be stand-offish and close-mouthed. Not Billy. He could have talked the wheels off a bicycle.
He figured I was heading West to become a cowboy because he started in educating me about everything from coyotes to trail bosses and back to cayuses. Rickety Fork was going to be the best part of the trip, he said.
When I told him I was riding all the way to San Francisco and my Uncle Harry's Emporium where I had a clerk job waiting, and I sure wasn't going to stop off in Rickety-whatever-it-was, he was real disappointed. "Where's your spirit, Son? How are you gonna make your fortune in this cruel world if you're 'fraid to take a chance?"
"I don't need a fortune," I said. "Just enough to go back to Harrisburg and start a little feed store."
"And you got a girl waiting too, I'll bet."
I could feel my face starting to redden. "What makes you say that?"
"Shucks, that's the way it always is. A man has the opportunity of a lifetime spread out in front of him -- a chance to really be something. That's what the West is, Son. But he decides he'd rather play it safe and close to the vest. And why? Because his head's all a-twitter about some female!"
He thought for a minute and then brightened. "Well, anyhow, we'll be stopped for a couple of hours at Rickety Fork. I asked the conductor 'fore I even got on this train." He leaned back against his seat like he'd just won something. "Yessir, I hear there's a shooting in ol' Rickety almost every day."
"I think I'll stay on the train," I said.
The trip was long, dirty, and hot, but Billy made the time pass with his exciting lectures on western history, geography, and customs. If there'd been a college of the Wild West, Billy would have been head professor. I noticed others in the car were listening and some even changed their seats to hear better. When he saw that, Billy began to talk louder.
His best subject was gunfights. He knew all the details of famous shootings in near every town and village we chugged through. "This is where Dry-Gulch Charlie Mathewson got his," he'd say, waving his hand at some dirty shacks we were passing. "He was an ornery cuss who'd shot one of the Bar-X boys in the back." Then he'd recite chapter and verse down to poor Charlie's last words.
He taught me the difference between bushwackers and straight-shooters. "It's an attitude. A straight-shooter is a feller you can turn your back on. You can depend on him to play square with you."
Right after he told a John Wesley Hardin story, Billy got bushwacked by the anvil salesman. He was a big, bluff fellow wearing a nifty store-bought suit, sitting there two seats away, more interested in the young lady with the blue parasol than in Billy's stories. It was hard to tell whether the one good smell in the coach was her perfume or his after-shave. I guess he didn't much like the way she kept looking admiring-like at Billy because he said in a voice like a snake coiling itself, "You know, fella, I been drumming this territory for near five years now. It's funny I never run into you."
"Well, it's a big country," Billy said easily.
"But someone who knows as much as you, why, I'll bet people come from miles around just to hear you spout. Yessir, you must be famous, I don't know why I can't recollect you. When was the last time you were in Dodge?"
"Or was it Abilene you come from? Where was it you said?"
Billy mumbled it so low I wasn't sure I heard him right until the anvil salesman repeated it so loud everybody in the car heard. "Philadelphia? Well, now stop me if I'm wrong. I'm just a drummer. I don't know all about shootings and such, but ain't Phil-a-del-phi-a somewhere back East?"
"Why, I've been to Philadelphia," the young lady with the blue parasol said. She meant anybody and everybody had been there.
"Do they punch many cows in Phil-a-del-phi-a?" the anvil salesman sneered. The young lady laughed.
Billy didn't say anything, and I watched an empty horizon go by out the window.
"I believe I would like a breath of air," the lady said, rising. The anvil salesman trailed after her toward the open platform at the rear end of the swaying car.
After sitting quiet for the longest time since I met him, Billy said, "I'll hazard I know more about the West than any fellow born and raised there. I've read everything in the whole Philadelphia Public Library. And I bought books."
I tried to think of something that would help. "Once I heard our preacher say he didn't have to visit heaven to know its streets were paved in gold," I told him.
After a while the anvil salesman and the lady came laughing back from the platform. They were so busy talking together they must have forgot about Billy. And after a longer while, he seemed to forget about them. We passed through another little town, and he told me briefly about a fourflusher who was called out by a German immigrant who couldn't talk English but could shoot like a native.
The nearer we got to Rickety Fork, the more Billy got stirred up. He kept checking to see his six-shooter was loaded okay. "A good man don't look for a fight," he told me, "but it never hurts to be ready."
He was itchy as a chigger waistcoat. When the train huffed to a stop beside the worn-out depot with its fresh-painted, red and green Welcome-to-Rickety-Fork sign, he just about leaped for the door. And like fool, I was right behind him.
The whole dusty stretch of Rickety Fork's main street was no more than a hundred yards of clean store fronts and old hitching posts, with the depot at one end and a big, orange and white saloon at the other. That's where we'd hear all about the latest shootings, Billy insisted, pulling us way ahead of the other passengers. We still had thirty yards to go when the "latest shooting" started.
We crouched behind our water trough. The bullets didn't seem aimed at us, but the thought that my life hung on how well some stranger could shoot scared me like hell. "Maybe we ought to make a dash for it, Billy."
He drew his six-shooter. "You go ahead," he said. "I'll cover you."
He took aim up the street. "Six to one odds don't seem fair to me," he said. Billy's six-shooter boomed and splinters flew from a hitching post near a shooter standing wide open on the plank sidewalk in front of the saloon. The feller had been exchanging shots nice as pie with the rifleman at the depot for quite a while, but a new partner in the fight seemed to rattle him. He dropped his rifle and scrambled back into the building.
"That evens things a little," Billy laughed.
Something slammed me in the back, knocking me flat into the dirt. For a split-second I thought I'd been shot. But no! Some old coot was standing over me, hollering to beat the band.
"What are you doing? Stop that! Stop that!"
A fat old man -- red-faced, gray-bearded, in a black suit and a purple rage -- stood there in the middle of a gunfight, bellowing at me. His yelling was scarier than the bullets. Even Billy went sheepish and stammered an apology.
Gray-beard glared, snorted, and pointed to a nearby doorway. "Get in there!" he roared.
We got. Gray-beard trudged through the door behind us. "You young idiots! Don't you know you could kill someone with that fool gun?"
"But -- but -- out there -- they were --" Billy sputtered.
A high-pitched peal of giggles made me turn. A thin man in tie and shirtsleeves was near collapsed in laughter against the wall, his green eyeshade slipped down over his nose. I looked around the large room. The long counter with its caged windows said "bank". So did the sign on the front window, only backwards: KNAB. While
Eyeshade giggled, Gray-beard -- the banker, I realized -- was busting a button. "That --" he waved his arm toward the street, "-- that is a private affair. You have no right to -- to --"
Eyeshade sat down, he was laughing so hard. I asked nervously, "Is it a bank robbery?"
"A bank robbery?" Gray-beard stared at me; then he stared at the wall and counted to ten while Eyeshade shook his head. When Gray-beard spoke again, he sounded almost friendly. "Look, boys, I'll explain later. You can watch the shoot-out from the window, but keep that gun holstered. Promise?"
Billy mumbled an agreement. We went meekly to the window. Shots still crackled outside. After a minute, I looked back. A calmer Gray-beard and Eyeshade were both laughing together in the rear of the bank.
"Look at that!" Billy cried, clutching my arm.
Through the window we saw a powerfully-built giant step from one of the buildings across the way and stride to the center of the street. A metal star glittered on his chest. Like Moses parting the water, he raised his right hand and the shooting ceased.
"Golly!" I gasped.
"The man with a star," Billy whispered, admiration dripping over his voice like syrup on a sundae.
Suddenly, a single shot came from the saloon. The sheriff clutched his chest and a splash of red gushed through his fingers. He staggered, almost fell, staggered again, raised his bloody hands to the sky, and then -- like a big tree -- fell over on his star.
"They shot the sheriff!" I screamed. Gray-beard, leaning against the counter at the back, nodded curtly.
"We gotta help him," Billy said. "He'll bleed to death out there."
"Billy, he's already dead."
His blue eyes flashed angrily. "Did you ever see a man shot?"
"Well, then you don't know, do you? You just don't know!"
"Uh -- boys?" Gray-beard called, his voice rising.
"You got a handkerchief?" Billy asked me.
"Yes, but --"
Billy had a white handkerchief out. "Follow me!" he cried and dashed out the door. My handkerchief was blue and Billy was a fool and it wasn't my fight and the sheriff was already dead and Billy was going to get me killed and Gray-beard had hold of my shirt and Billy was crazy! But I followed him anyway.
In a second we were beside the body. I heard shots and yelling from the saloon. Billy heaved the dead man over onto his back. The whole front of the sheriff's shirt was drenched bright red, but his eyes flew open.
"Get away!" the sheriff whispered hoarsely
"Don't worry, Lawman!" Billy shouted, putting his hands under the sheriff's shoulders. "We'll take care of you!"
I grabbed the sheriff's feet. He kicked at me, no doubt crazy with pain. Somehow we lugged him, squirming, kicking, and cussing across the street and into the bank. I tore at his shirt. The awful bleeding had to be stopped. The wet cloth came away easily.
With a sudden burst of strength, the sheriff pushed me aside and jumped to his feet. Then he ran to the rear of the bank and disappeared out the door. I still held the shreds of his bloody shirt in my hands.
Gray-beard cleared his throat. "Well," he said, "I guess he wasn't hurt too bad after all."
"He wasn't hurt at all," Billy said, gaping.
"He didn't have any bullet wounds," I said.
Gray-beard looked at the floor. "Uh -- no, I guess --"
"What in blazes is going on?" Billy yelled.
"Look, boys, there's no harm done." He smiled weakly. "A little show. That's all."
Billy stared at him coldly.
Gray-beard cleared his throat again. We waited. Outside, shots continued. "Well, two years ago, the railroad threatened to quit stopping at Rickety Fork." He shrugged. "That would have been the end of the town. We would've just dried up and blown away."
"So you put on sham gunfights," Billy said bitterly. "Fakes!"
The old man nodded. "Son, you got to understand. It put us on the map. Folks wanted to stop at Rickety Fork so they could see the Wild West. We gave 'em what they wanted."
"A show!" Billy was near tears.
"So, after the -- uh -- gunfight, the train passengers go to the saloon for a while, buy a few drinks, maybe some souvenirs. No harm's done."
"No harm!" Billy spat on the floor.
The old banker ignored that and smiled his friendliest. "I hope we can keep this our little secret, boys. I'm sure we can make it worth your while."
"But -- but what about all that shooting?" I asked.
"Blanks," Eyeshade said.
"Blanks!" Billy echoed.
"We couldn't take a chance on anyone getting careless. So every gun in town is loaded with blank cartridges."
"Except one," Billy`s eyes were big as silver dollars as he leveled his six-shooter at the banker. "Stick 'em up," he said.