by Doug Allyn
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
“Wilson! Hack Wilson! I know you’re in there, damn you. Step out or I’ll come in and drag you out!”
Flinching at the anger in Miller’s voice, I glanced quickly around the seedy saloon, looking for a friendly face. Didn’t see one. No one even met my eyes.
Drinkers looked to their whiskey, gamblers looked to their cards, the whores just looked bored. I’d be making this fight alone.
Tossing back my bourbon with a single swallow, I slid my short-barreled Colt Peacemaker out of its holster, spun the cylinder to make sure it was free, cocked the hammer and eased it off, twice. Perfect. Slick as an oiled eel.
“Gimme one for the road,” I said, pushing my shot glass toward the barkeep. He was a scrawny galoot with a wispy moustache, thinning hair combed sideways, slicked down to cover his naked scalp. His jaw was quivering. Looked like a scared rabbit.
“Please, Mr. Wilson, take it outside. I don’t want no trouble in here—”
“You’ve already got trouble!” I roared, hurling my shot glass at the mirror behind the bar, shattering it into a million splinters. “I said gimme another!”
He pushed a full bottle across the bar towards me, then backed hastily away, getting out of the line of fire.
Didn’t blame him.
Snatching up the whiskey bottle, I yanked the cork out with my teeth, then spat it on the dirt floor. I guzzled down half the bottle in a few gulps, slopping the excess down my chin. Felt no kick from it, though.
The bartender was right. I had no friends in this room. I’d be better off taking my chances in the street.
Time to go. Time to fight. And to die.
Taking a final pull from the bottle, I tossed it aside. Sucked in a ragged breath, squared my shoulders, then pushed through the doors into the morning sun’s pitiless glare.
Miller was waiting across the dusty street in the doorway of a dry-goods store, his flat-brimmed black Stetson pulled low to shade his eyes, his full-length yellow duster flapping in the prairie wind.
He swept his coat open to reveal a fancy, two-gun concho rig, with both holsters tied down. His guns were a matched pair of ’73 Remington Navy .44s, nickel-plated. The holsters were lined with metal, cut halfway past the cylinders for speed. A serious professional’s rig. A gun hand’s rig.
“We don’t have to do this,” I called. “You can just ride out.”
He didn’t bother to reply. Just spat, in total contempt. He wouldn’t be riding off. He was here for me, and we both knew the play now.
Stepping off the porch, I began walking slowly towards him. He hesitated a moment, then did the same. At ten yards apart, we both stopped dead in the middle of the street. Waiting. For some unspoken signal that would trigger the killing—
A tumbleweed blew between us. Miller blinked, and in the same instant went for his gun. His hand flashed down so fast it was only a blur.
I drew too, but I was already a split second late. My Colt had barely cleared leather when Miller fired. Something exploded against my chest. A gout of blood spurted outward, and then another as Miller fired again.
I staggered backwards, dropped slowly to my knees, then toppled the rest of the way, firing my Colt uselessly as I fell, dying face down in the street, with a gun in my hand.
I lay there, utterly still. Dead as a beaver hat. Miller loomed over me a few seconds, making sure I was done, then did a triumphant pinwheel, spinning both Remingtons neatly into his holsters. Then he just stood there, stone-faced, staring down at me.
For what seemed like a goddamn year.
He let his coat fall closed. And still he stared. And still I lay there. Dead as a doornail.
What the hell was the holdup? How much deader could I get?
“Cut! That’s a wrap!” Marv Kirske, the assistant director, called at last. “Nice job, Toby. Way to die.”
“I damn near died of old age waiting for you to call it, you putz,” I growled, getting to my feet. “It blows the take if your corpse sits up gasping for air.”
“Pain is temporary, movies are forever,” Marv shrugged, sauntering over to help me brush the dust off. With his stylish stubble, faded fatigue jacket, and citron scarf, Marv could pass for a gay street hustler, but he’s a brilliant second-unit film director with a rep for the best action scenes in the biz. The staffers on Big Mack McCray films are all crème de la crème.
“That really was a dynamite death scene,” Marv sighed. “Too bad we can’t use it.”
“Why can’t you? You just said it was good.”
“It was terrific, Toby,” Marv agreed, “but it wasn’t exactly revolutionary. Cameron Mitchell got shot in a hot tub, Eastwood shot three gunnies from a barber chair. All the cool shootouts have been done, pal. This is my eleventh Big Mack western, and the studio wants something edgy to generate some media buzz. Word I’m getting is, they want us to shoot a real gunfight.”
“Real? What the hell does that mean?”
“We’ll retake the street scene with you and Clete, but instead of blanks, you’ll both be shooting wax squibs filled with Technicolor blood. Afterward, we’ll tweak the script so whoever wins will advance to the final shootout with Big Mack.”
“What is this? American Idol with guns?” I asked. “It won’t work, Marv. Any pro gunman can hook and draw in three-fifths of a second. So fast the cameras can barely catch it. We’ll wind up shooting each other, and then what? Big Mack has a gunfight with himself?”
“We’ll keep doing retakes until we get a winner.” Marv shrugged. “The studio doesn’t care who wins, Toby. What matters is, the trailers can call it THE MOST REALISTIC GUNFIGHT EVER FILMED!”
“Ah. Got it.” I nodded. “Damn. I need a drink. Buy you one?”
“Can’t,” Marv sighed, “I’ve got to meet with legal and our insurance people about our liability with the wax squibs. They’ve had issues with them in the past.”
“Whoa up! What issues?” I called after him. He just waved over his shoulder without turning.
Now I definitely needed a drink.
“Mr. Gates? Toby Gates?”
I almost didn’t answer. I’d spent my morning getting killed as Hack Wilson.
“Wait up, please,” the woman said breathlessly, overtaking me. She was pert and perky in a trim business suit, dark eyes, dark hair. Holding up a press credential.
“I’m Leah Bronstein, with the studio publicity department? We’re collecting background for press releases. Could you spare me a few minutes? I’ll buy the coffee.”
I would have preferred a real drink, but extras never say no to publicity and we were miles from the nearest real saloon anyway. We were filming on location, in a dusty desert ghost town a few miles outside Kanab, Utah. Over the years, more than a hundred movies have been made in the area. The Outlaw Josey Wales, Stagecoach, The Lone Ranger. Hell, even Planet of the Apes was shot a few miles south. Rural Utah has canyons, deserts, forests, mountains, plus three complete western towns, all within easy driving distance of bustling downtown Kanab.
The catering wagon was still serving and the line was short. Bronstein collected two coffees and we adjourned to a corner with an umbrella, away from the mob of extras scarfing down goodies from a smorgasbord table piled with doughnuts, rolls, yogurt cups. She was eyeing my shirt uneasily, and I realized I was still bleeding, in Technicolor, from a blood packet over my heart.
“If that was really my blood, I’d be a zombie, miss.”
“It certainly looks real,” she said warily. “Looks like it hurts.”
“It’s supposed to. Are you new to all this?”
“I’ve never done an interview on location before. I’m mostly an in-house flack. Have we met, Mr. Gates? You look familiar.”
“You’ve probably seen me get killed a few times. In The Hired Gun, I’m the thug who spits just before Big Mack blows me off the stagecoach with a twelve gauge.”
“That’s right!” she nodded eagerly. “And in Sagebrush Stranger you take your sweet time pulling on your gloves before Mack guns you down.”
“Actually, I killed myself in that one.”
“You—sorry. I don’t understand.”
“I’m not an extra, miss, I’m a fast gun. It’s an uncommon skill these days. Critics call Big Mack the new John Wayne, but Mack can’t even fake a fast draw. In the Sagebrush shootout, the camera panned to my hands as I pulled on those black leather gloves, then it cut back to Mack. No gloves. Then they split the screen, as the gunmen drew and fired, one wearing gloves, one not. But the hands that drew and fired on the split screen were mine, on both sides.”
“So in the big shootout scene, you were shooting yourself?”
“Welcome to showbiz, miss.”
“But this morning, you faced a real gunman.”
“Clete Peterzak playing . . . somebody Miller.” I nodded. “Clete’s a gun hand too. The split-screen business won’t fly twice. Been there, done that.”
“I would think most western scenes have been done. How many have you been in?”
“Only three. I got out of the army after two tours in Afghanistan. My Uncle Jocko’s a horse wrangler on Big Mack films. I landed on his doorstep, he got me the job.”
“So you basically just showed up in Hollywood and said I’m your huckleberry?”
“The line from Tombstone. Val Kilmer says, ‘I’m your huckleberry’?”
I shook my head. “Must have missed it.”
“Doesn’t every cowboy extra know Tombstone by heart? It’s a classic.”
“I grew up on a ranch in the Yukon Territory, miss. Whitehorse. We saw movies in town maybe once a month. There was no TV, and definitely no huckleberries. When was Tombstone in theaters?”
“I was in grade school. And by the way, I’m not an extra. I’m a stock wrangler and a gunman. Skilled trades.”
“Which were probably in high demand, back in the nineteenth century.” She smiled, sipping her coffee, watching me over the brim. “When we were kids, western movies had a big following, but nowadays they’re pretty much passé. Mack McCray flicks are the only westerns that do consistent box office and even his popularity’s been slipping. Pickings must be a bit slim for an extra with your particular skill set.”
“I’m not an extra, I—” I stopped.
She was good, but a gunman’s life can depend on reading faces. And I caught the faintest glint of amusement in her eyes.
“—but you already know that, don’t you, miss? Along with everything else I just told you. You’re not with public relations. Interviewing extras is a job for an intern, and you’re a tad too old and a lot too smart. Who are you, lady?”
Instead of answering, she slid a business card across the faded Formica table. Leah Bronstein, Massif Film Productions, Studio Security Section.
“Security?” I said “You’re some kind of studio cop?”
“I’m an attorney, actually. A troubleshooter, Mr. Gates. My job is to resolve minor problems before they become major.”
“How am I a problem?”
“Your name came up in an inquiry. One concerning Noreen McCray, Big Mack’s wife. And your involvement with her.”
I didn’t say anything. Couldn’t. Felt like I’d been kicked in the belly.
“I’ll take your silence as a confirmation, Mr. Gates,” Leah nodded, watching me intently. “Ordinarily the studio brass couldn’t care less about the love lives of their employees, but Mack McCray’s audience is centered in the Bible Belt. A flurry of negative news stories could demolish his franchise overnight, and cost the studio millions. You have to end the affair, Mr. Gates, or face some very serious consequences.”
“End it?” I echoed, feeling slightly better, but getting angrier by the moment. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“Why? Because it’s love, true love?” she said, with a mock sigh. “Reality check, Mr. Gates. Noreen McCray was a high-priced escort before she landed Big Mack. She’s still a gold digger at heart. And while you look good in jeans and have a certain raffish charm, you’re only an extra, Toby. She’ll never leave her husband for you.”
“I wouldn’t expect her to.”
“Then I don’t understand. If you’re hoping for a payday, the studio can probably arrange for a small consideration—”
“You’re offering to buy me off? Wow, I can definitely see why they sent you, miss.”
“You’re smart as a whip, lady, and very pretty. And if you were a man, you’d be spitting out your teeth! I can’t break up with Noreen McCray, miss, because I’m not seeing Noreen McCray. There’s no affair, no nothin’. We’re not even friends. You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“Have we, indeed?” she said, not backing off an inch. “Then perhaps you’d care to explain this?” She slid a photo across the table. For a moment, I didn’t realize what I was seeing. And then I did. Sweet Jesus.
“Big Mack was in New York last weekend, taping the Tonight Show,” Bronstein went on, leaning in, keeping her voice down. “Mrs. McCray spent a few happy hours on location in his trailer. That’s her car parked in front of it. And unless I’m mistaken, that’s your car parked right beside it.”
She wasn’t mistaken. I drive a customized Jaguar XK-E, bought with my army separation pay.
“A Jag with a bucking-bronco hood ornament is hard to miss, Mr. Gates. Care to explain what you were doing there?”
“I, um—” I stalled out, still staring at the picture. “I guess someone must have borrowed my car.”
“So it was stolen?”
“Nothing like that. Kanab is five hundred miles from L.A., lady. Most of the crew gets here on the studio bus, and we all crash at the Red Desert Lodge. It’s tough to rent a car in this burg, so those of us who drive leave their keys at the desk as a courtesy. Everybody does it.”
“So you claim you don’t know who used your car?”
“I don’t claim anything, miss. It’s the truth.”
“Then I strongly suggest you find out.”
“Wrong skill set, lady. I’m a gunman and a stock wrangler. I’m not a freakin’ detective and I’m definitely not a snitch. Mrs. McCray’s love life is your problem, not mine.”
“I’d rethink that, if I were you, Mr. Gates. In the past two years you’ve only worked on five films, total. That number could easily drop to zero. A few years ago, a Brit named Trenton played a Confederate officer in The Bounty Soldiers. After a fling with Noreen, he never worked again. Anywhere. He was blacklisted, even back home in England. Committed suicide last year.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“I’m just the messenger, Mr. Gates,” she said, rising, looking down at me. “Bottom line, Big Mack McCray’s westerns generate substantial cash flow for the studio. An ugly divorce could destroy his brand. Media trolls would have a field day with it. We need to snuff this out!”
“Sorry. I can’t help you.”
“Can’t? Or won’t?” she asked, sizing me up.
I shrugged at that.
“You’re making a huge mistake, Mr. Gates.”
“I’ve had a lot of practice, Miss Bronstein. Or is it Mrs.?”
“It’s miss. Why?”
“I’m hoping you aren’t immune to my ‘raffish charm.’ Thanks for that, by the way.”
“Forget it, Mr. Gates, and forget me. I’ve been married twice, to actors both times. Never again.”
“Then it’s lucky I’m not an actor. I’m a gunman. Maybe I’m even your . . . what did you call me? Strawberry?”
“The line from Tombstone is: ‘I’m your huckleberry,’ ” she said evenly, her dark eyes locked on mine. “Doc Holliday says it to Ringo just before he shoots him in the head. You have my card, Mr. Gates. Call me when you come to your senses.”
“I’d rather call you after this blows over.”
“It’s not going to blow over, Toby, it’s going to blow up. And when the dust settles, you’ll be gone. Be smart. Get out from under this thing before it buries you.”
I didn’t say anything to that. She shrugged and stalked off toward the parking lot. A pert woman in a business suit, mysterious eyes, hair dark as a raven’s wing. She looked as good leaving as she had coming on.
“Be smart. Get out from under this before it buries you.”
Good advice. I should have taken it.
Instead I caught the next shuttle bus from the ghost-town location back to the Red Desert Lodge.
At the front desk, I asked a bright-eyed blonde with a stud in her nose to check the sign-out log to see who’d borrowed my car the previous weekend.
“William Boyd,” she read.
“Boyd? Is he with the crew?”
Blondie frowned, doing a quick scan of her computer screen. “There’s no William Boyd registered at the Lodge, Mr. Gates. But . . . ?”
“But?” I prompted.
“Wasn’t Hopalong Cassidy’s real name William Boyd?”
I stared at her blankly.
“You know, Hoppy?” she said eagerly. “Old-time cowboy on TV?”
“Was he in Tombstone?”
“I—don’t think so. He would have been like way too old by then.”
“Never mind,” I sighed. “I know who borrowed my car.”
I found Clete Peterzak in the lodge gym. Tall, slim, and hard as a railroad tie, Clete was shirtless, showing off his iron-pumper muscles and elaborate tats, practicing fast draws in front of a mirror. On a hardwood floor, with no safety mat. Which is one risky damn thing to do. His matched ’73 Remington pistols were originals, probably worth five grand apiece.
“Toby Gates,” Clete said without turning, “what are you doing walking around? I thought I killed you.”
“The script killed me, hotshot. Did Marvin tell you about the changes the brass wants?”
“Yeah. Says they’re tired of shooting the same old, same old, want a real gunfight, with wax bullets. We can skip being wired up with exploding blood packs and all that nonsense. It’ll be as close to real as they can make it, without us actually killing each other.”
“That’s the plan.”
“It won’t be much of a fight, pal. I’ve been timed with lasers at a sixth of a second. Faster than a bat can blink. What are your times like?”
“I honed my chops in Afghanistan, Clete. No timers there. And it won’t matter anyway. Let’s say you’re right, say you’re actually twice as fast as me. Your draw takes a sixth of a second, mine takes a third. Do the math, genius.”
“Marv said you think we’ll just shoot each other. But that won’t happen. I’ll drop you on the first take, Toby. Know why?”
“Nope, but I’m guessing I’m about to find out.”
“Math only works for machines, bud, but we’re real live gunmen, shooting real live bullets, even if they’re just wax.”
“So down deep, you know I’m younger and faster. And when the big moment comes? You’ll try to jack up your speed. But a fast draw has to be pure reflex, Toby. If you even think about your speed, you’ve already lost. The old-time gunfighters, Wild Bill, Wyatt Earp, Ringo? Think they did any math before a gunfight?”
“Most Western shootouts never really happened. They’re myths.”
“Well, I won’t myth, Toby,” Clete grinned, cocky as a high-school quarterback on Friday night. “You should figure on dying dramatically when I kill you.”
“Same to you, pal,” I said, turning to go.
And I almost left it there. I was tempted to. But couldn’t quite do that.
“Was there something else?” Clete asked, admiring his front spin in the mirror.
“Neither one of us will ever beat Big Mack, you know. We’ll always be the bad guys.”
“I’m good with that. I grew up in East L.A. Bad guys do just fine there. Real bad guys,” he added, jerking a thumb at his gang tats. “Besides, some movie bad guys make it big. Charles Bronson, Jason Statham.”
“You won’t, Clete. A studio lawyer cornered me today. They know Noreen’s having an affair.”
“I’ve heard that,” he said smugly. “I hear they think it’s you. Did you rat me out?”
“Don’t borrow my car again, Clete.”
“Or what? You’ll call me out?” He executed a perfect border shift, his right-hand gun spinning like a pinwheel into his left hand. “It’s almost funny, you know? Must be fifty extras in this film wearing guns, but we’re the only two who are gunfighters for real.”
“Wax bullets aren’t real.”
“Lucky for you, chump.
“I guess we’ll find out.” I shrugged. “If you borrow my car again, I’ll report it stolen. Clear?”
“You don’t want to do that, Toby,” Clete said, his grin a little crazy. Aiming his pistol at my face, he slowly cocked the hammer. Six inches from my nose, the muzzle looked gigantic. It was so close I could count the rounds in the cylinder. They were blanks, but at this distance it wouldn’t matter. The muzzle blast could blind me or split my skull like a watermelon slammed with a sledge.
Neither of us moved, our eyes locked like laser sights.
Clete pulled back his right-hand gun, instantly replacing it with his left.
Then he went into a dazzling bit of gunplay.
“Forward spin, reverse spin, cross spin, border shift, owl-hoot shift,” he called out, executing each maneuver flawlessly as he announced it, two guns in action at the same time, both weapons whirling like pinwheels, silvery blurs, even to my practiced eye.
At the end he spun both guns into their holsters. Then slicked back an imaginary moustache. “Tombstone,” he said.
“Ringo’s gunwork in Tombstone. The saloon scene.”
“Very flashy,” I conceded, “until you drop one and blow your nuts off.”
“I’ve never dropped a piece and never will, Toby. If anybody’s minus his nuts, it’s you.”
And I realized he actually believed that. That he’d never fumble a weapon, or come down with dysentery the day of a fight, or say the wrong damn thing to a woman he loved. It hadn’t happened to him yet, so he assumed it never would.
Christ, how old was Clete? Mid twenties, tops. Still young and dumb enough to think he’d be magic forever.
I remembered that feeling. At twenty, most guys think they’re ten feet tall and bulletproof. Some of us outgrow it.
If we live that long.
And I definitely needed a drink.
Stepping into the lounge in the Red Desert Lodge is like a time warp, a flashback to the Old West. The long, oaken bar is polished to a bright shine. A dozen coats of varnish cover carved initials and obscenities that span a century, or two. Billy Cobb home on leave, August 4, 1953. For a grate blow job call Hannah at Middlefield 2431.
The furniture is just as crude. Hand-hewn tables and cedar log chairs upholstered with buckskin, complete with burned-in brands. Wyatt Earp would feel right at home.
Not much action this early in the day. A few extras from the Big Mack movie were pounding brews after the morning shoot, tourist families with kids in the dining area, hoping to spot a celebrity.
And at the end of the bar? One honest to God old cowpoke. Faded denims, broke-down boots, wild gray hair. His left eye was covered by a black patch, lost, along with his leg below the knee, in a stampede scene in a Mack McCray movie stunt back in the day. My Uncle Jocko.
After his injury, he came home to the family ranch at Whitehorse to heal up. I was fourteen that summer, eager to soak up everything he taught me. Gun work, horse falls, rope tricks. How not to lose an eye and half a leg. When he went back to L.A., it broke my young heart.
But years later, when I showed up on his doorstep fresh back from Afghanistan, dazed and confused by things I’d seen—things I’d done?—Jocko took me in without a quibble. Found me movie work, handling horses at first, then as a gunman, killing stuntmen for the cameras, instead of sniping jihadis for real. He’s my all-time favorite uncle, and one look at my face told him something was up.
“Wow,” he said, turning back to his beer. “Who whizzed in your soup?”
I quickly recounted my meet with the studio lawyer, Bronstein. What she said, what I said. Jocko said nothing. Taking it all in, absently massaging his cheekbone just below his eyepatch.
Which he only does when he’s troubled.
“Does she know about you and Noreen McCray?” he asked.
“I don’t think so, Unc. That was just a weekend fling a couple of years ago. Back when I was too green to know better. Bronstein didn’t mention that at all. Only that my car was at Big Mack’s trailer.”
“I’ve heard of this Bronstein,” Jocko mused. “People say she’s really sharp. With luck, she’ll figure out it’s Clete doin’ the deed with Mrs. Mack and you’ll be off the hook. If not, I’ll drop a dime on this punk myself. The last place you want to be is on the wrong side of Big Mack McCray, not if you ever want to work in a Western again. Ask Bones.”
“Bones Benedict. He was the prop master on Mack’s films until a few years ago. He handed Gene Hackman a loaded shotgun by mistake. Gene fired a round into the air and blew out ten grand worth of spotlights. Glass and sparks raining down like a hailstorm. Bones hasn’t worked a movie since, until this one.”
“This film? Since when?”
“Since the brass decided to punch up the gunfight scene. They needed somebody who’d worked with wax bullets before. Bones is a rummy, but he’s the only guy Stony could think of who had experience with them wax slugs. They ain’t been used in years.”
“Marvin said he was meeting with studio insurance people, that they’d had issues with them.”
Jocko shrugged. “They sting some, but it’s nothin’ a country boy can’t handle. But a wino handling weapons on a set? That’s bad mojo, Toby. Maybe you should pull out.”
“Quit? Are you serious?”
“Tell ’em your mama’s sick, or your cat. Tell ’em any damn thing. I’m gettin’ a bad feeling about this. . . .”
Copyright © 2017. Tombstone by Doug Allyn