I know you've heard about that shootout at the OK Corral down in Arizona. October twenty-sixth eighteen eighty-one, was the date. Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, along with Doc Holliday, faced off against the Ike Clanton gang in the Dust of Fremont Street—hell, every street in Tombstone was dusty in those days—and thirty shots were fired in as many seconds. When the black smoke cleared, three of the Clanton gang was dead, and two of the Earps, along with the Doc, were wounded. Only Wyatt stood untouched.
Those are the basic facts of the thing. They ain't in dispute, and the story has been told more times than a body can count. But before the Tombstone fracas, there was another showdown that was the talk of the old west, and had such legend that anyone who seen it was guaranteed free drinks the rest of their life just for tellin' the tale.
Of course, the story tended to grow with time right along with the free liquor. But this is the facts of what took place, five years earlier than the Tombstone affair, almost to the day, in Dodge City, Kansas. Strange enough, Wyatt Earp was there for that one, too, though in a more indirect fashion. This is the events as they've been passed down, and you can believe 'em or not.
In the spring of '76, Dodge City was so wild, that when Wyatt took the badge he immediately took on some deputies that was good with their guns, includin' Bill Tilghman, Charlie Basset, Neal Brown and Bat Masterson, as tough and straight-shootin' a bunch of lawmen as you could hope to find. Next thing they did was to create a deadline just north of the railroad yards on Front Street. North of that line, no guns was allowed, and the new lawmen in Dodge was just the ones who could enforce it. That way, the businesses north of the deadline remained respectable and peaceful. The Long Branch Saloon, case you was wonderin,' was and still is on the north side of the deadline.
South of the deadline, though, things stayed as wild as ever, and that's exactly where the second most famous showdown in the west took place, in October of eighteen seventy-six, right inside the Shady Lady Saloon. The Lady was the biggest and grandest place south of the deadline, even grander they say, than the Long Branch itself. It was big for sure, with a hundred tables more or less in the main room. It sparkled with green, blue, red, and gold paint, and lighting fixtures from Chicago.
The Lady's grand sign, hangin' right over the swingin' doors, was thirty-foot-wide and ten high, the name curvin' above a painting of the owner and shady lady herself, Hetty Lankford, reclinin' on the bar. She was a beauty, Hetty was, and in the painting she was wearin' a welcoming glass of whiskey in one hand and nothin' else. Long waves of her red hair fell over her shoulders to cover key parts of her female amplitude. Along with a bar towel, they was the only things that maintained decorum.
The Shady Lady also had the longest bar between St. Louis and San Francisco, a fifty-foot maple beauty made from a single tree trunk, varnished deep amber, and finished with a shellac that even rotgut whiskey couldn't penetrate. On an average day, they say, it took three bartenders to work it.
It was the first Saturday in October, and it'd been rainin' some. The streets was sort of just between dry and muddy. Gamblin' and drinkin'—lots of drinkin— and well, other business as you might imagine, was in full swing at the Lady, same as up and down the streets south of the line. The Lady's bar and hundred tables was almost full-up. Then, just as the sun poked a hole in the rain clouds, Sammy Hoover, who was a local handyman and, well, we'll just leave it at handyman, burst through the swingin' doors like a twister through a stand of saplings, yelling his head off.
"You ain't gonna believe what I just seen!' he hollered. He had to holler twice or three times before the place quieted down and everybody was lookin' at him.
"Hoover, ya drunken maniac, what in the hell are you yellin' about," said Wes Scraggs. Wes was the manager and chief bartender, workin' the maple with three others that day, includin' a pretty young lady name of Kathy somethin' or other, and he didn't take lightly to having the proceedings disturbed. Neither did his boss lady. South of the deadline or not, civilized proceedings was maintained inside her establishment. To make sure of it, Wes kept a sizeable Billy club made of hard maple under the bar, to enforce the peace, and a twin-barreled shotgun just in case anyone doubted his sincerity.
But everyone could see that Sam Hoover wasn't just dripping some rain, but sweatin' hard and out of breath. What with his age and fondness for liquor, it was impressive to some folks that he hadn't worked himself up right into a heart attack. He skidded to a stop right next to the table where Lester Sykes was about to win his fifth straight round of five-card stud, and the sudden halt caused water to dive off of his hat right onto the cards, raisin' a ruckus and stoppin' the game. It might have also saved Lester's life, on account of Myron Preston had come to be pretty sure Lester had more up his sleeves than his arms, but the commotion sorta drove everything else out of his mind, and by the time he got back to thinkin' about it, Lester's sleeves was empty of everything but skin and bone. Lester was a crook, but he weren't no fool.
Sam Hoover gathered his wits, caught his breath, and took a handful of heartbeats while he gloried in having the attention of the whole place. Then he said it.
"Bob Staley just rode into town."
"Aces Bob Staley?" somebody called out.
"You know any other Bob Staley what rides a stud pinto named Becky?" Sam called right back. "And you can damn well guess why he's moseyin' straight for the Lady."
There was a heavy quiet in the place for a handful of seconds. and heads turned to look at the stairway up to the second floor where the sleepin' rooms was. The whole place knew that Colorado Jack St. Claire was currently residin' in one of those rooms, and he weren't alone this day. Fact of the matter was, he was enjoyin' the company of the exact same woman both he and Bob Staley had been wooin' for nigh on a year.
Now, if you're thinkin' what I think you're thinkin,' and of course you'd naturally be thinkin' it, you would be wrong. It weren't Hetty Lankford. Hetty was still beautiful, but she was some twenty years or so older than she'd been when she posed for the artwork that adorned the front of her saloon. She was also rich, and moved among the wealthy elitists of Dodge, and was all but married to a banker on the respectable side of the deadline. Halfway 'tween forty and fifty, the Mistress of the Shady Lady had neither the need or the desire to be playin' slap 'n tickle games pittin' two of the territory's most deadly gunmen against each other.
And that's exactly who Bob Staley and Jack St. Claire were. Bob had got his nickname at a poker game in Wichita. Holding no less than three aces, he'd gone all in on the bet, only to see the dealer, a cardsharp name of Trey Easley, plop down three aces of his own. Easley was crooked, all right, but he weren't slow to react, recognizing the error of his ways as quick as Staley laid his cards down. Accordin' to the story, Easley grabbed a pistol from his coat pocket and had it pointed right at Bob, who upon seein' the gun pointin' at him, drew his forty-four and shot Easley under the table before the gambler could pull the trigger.
Folks said it was the fourth man Aces Bob Staley had outgunned, all fair fights, includin' one Frank McGraw, who had three notches—there was some who said it was seven, but those folks was fools who read the dime novels—on the grip of his Colt, and many thought was as quick as Johnny Ringo. But he weren't a match for Aces Bob that day in Abilene when Bob caught him beatin' on a bar girl. Aces Bob had lived a rough life as a cowboy, trail hand, shotgun messenger on stage coaches, sometime bounty hunter (which accounted for two of the men he killed), and occasional gambler. But his good Oklahoma upbringing as a preacher's son had imbued him with a strong respect for how women, of any ilk, should be treated. He'd got his education with a six-gun from none other than Josiah Cord, 'n surely you've heard of him.
Gentleman Jack St. Claire, now, he was a somewhat different story. Legend was that he'd put six men down, and folks who'd seen him swore his draw could make your eyes blur. He was from Georgia, you know, same as the Doc, an' the two of 'em wasn't too dissimilar in appearance, though Jack were a little taller, a few pounds heavier. Course, Jack didn't have the consumption. Like Holliday, he was a college man, who had studied engineering, and worked with the railroads as an engineer and sometime troubleshooter when he weren't gambling. The former paid more steady but the latter paid somewhat better. He had no formal education with gun play, but had always come natural to it. He usually carried two pistols, one in his coat pocket (he was always impeccable dressed), and an ivory-handled forty-four on his belt, right in front, tilted so the butt was in easy reach of his left hand, as he was left-handed. There were those who said he was as fast as Doc Holliday himself, and most folks'd give Jack the edge over Bob, but others wasn't at all sure about that. And gunfights was funny things, if you overlooked the killin.' There wasn't no referee nor anyone sayin' when to draw, 'n you never knew just how they'd go.
Wes Scraggs gave a nod to Kathy behind the bar as quick as Sam Hoover uttered the words Bob Staley, 'n she disappeared up the stairs. 'Twas only a handful of eternal seconds before Jack St. Claire appeared 'round the corner at the head of the stairs, as casual and relaxed as a kitten lappin' up cream. Clingin' to his right arm was the center of the ruckus, Miss Molly O'Day. Right behind 'em was Hetty, who ignored Jack's suggestion otherwise and stepped out in front of them.
Molly was of the same age Hetty had been when the painting was done. She was a wisp of a thing, as people used to say, barely over five feet tall, with a petite-type figure that you wouldn't hardly notice. But like Hetty, who was sorta like a mother to her, she had thick, flamin' red hair down to her shoulder blades, and a God-given beautiful pixie face with big green eyes that danced when she laughed, which seemed to be most of the time, and a sparky, mischievous personality that could infect a whole room. She also had an Irish temper worthy of someone twice her size, and those green eyes could flash and turn dark real quick with an anger that'd make the devil proud. At the moment, she was somewhere 'tween the two.
Well, it didn't take no genius to see what was shapin' up. The two hundred-or-so souls in the Shady Lady went from starin' to buzzin' and started makin' bets. Hetty and Molly watched the proceedings with a lot of unease and not a little disgust. Jack just gazed over the room with half-a-smile, the fingers of his left hand tappin' lightly on the butt of his pistol. Hetty, who hadn't got rich by not noticin' every little thing, looked at him sideways.
"Don't be a damn fool, Jack," she said, real quiet. "You're not plannin' on marryin' this girl. You don't need to be killin' or dyin' over her."
Jack's expression never changed.
"Up to him, Hetty," he said, so quiet only the two women could hear him.
It was just that moment when Bob Staley strolled through the swingin' doors, and stopped a few feet into the room. He stood there real easy-like, his thumbs hooked over his belt, his face hard-set, glancin' around while his eyes adjusted. The crowd got quieter, but the bettin' continued, just a little more prudent-like. After a couple of long moments, Bob looked right up at the three people at the top of the stairs.
Jack St. Claire moved away from the women and took a couple of steps down the stairs.
"Afternoon, Bob," Jack said just as normal as meetin' someone on the street.
"Afternoon, Jack," Bob said, in just the same way. But everyone could see his mood was dark as a tar pit. "I thought we talked before, 'bout Molly."
Now the commerce takin' place all around him dropped to whispers and folks took turns lookin' back and forth between the two men. Lots of 'em held their breath as Jack St. Claire kept walkin' down the stairs, real slow and relaxed, makin' no moves that might've started the shootin' right there. But someone said later, he didn't look like he cared one way or another. At the foot of the stairs, he tilted his head a little and scratched at it with his right hand, smilin' as he did it.
"Well, Bob," he said, friendly as you please, "here's the thing. You think Molly's your girl, and I respect that. Problem is, she says she isn't. I respect that a bit more. Seems to me she gets to say whether she's anybody's girl. She's a woman, not a horse. She gets to choose, don't you think?"
"Molly told you she ain't my girl?" Bob Staley's face got sorta crunched up, an' his eyes narrowed. Jack St. Claire spoke just as friendly and relaxed as always. He weren't called Gentleman Jack for nothin', and it was said he was most polite just before he commenced shootin'.
"Bob, she told me she ain't nobody's steady girl, that's all."
"You're lyin' Jack!" Staley blurted out, his eyes flarin'.
Gentleman Jack's smile didn't change, but he took a step toward Bob Staley and shifted a little to his left. They was now lined up straight at each other, no more than fifteen feet apart. Jack's fingertips started tappin' again, barely brushin' the butt of his pistol. He spoke so quiet that folks might not even have heard him, 'cept the room had suddenly gone as quiet as a graveyard.
"Bob," he said, "you tryin' to make this a less than civilized discussion?"
Right then and there, everybody knowed the thing could turn into shootin' faster than you could think it. Some folks held their breath. A few others, feeling they was in too much of a straight line behind the two men, stood up, real quiet-like, and moved to the side. A cowboy who started into the saloon saw the situation and edged away from the door.
It was a moment beggin' to be painted. Bob Staley was worked up and primed, and Jack St. Claire was as quiet and peaceful as a coiled rattlesnake. Nobody moved. The air in the Shady Lady stopped movin,' no more than half a breath from fillin' with gunsmoke.
And then the damndest thing happened. The kinda thing that only happens in storybooks and never in real life. Just when the whole place was near blowin' up from sheer tension, Molly O'Day's voice rang out like the peal of a church bell, a big one.
"Will you two cockamamie, jackass stupid, blusterin' mindless idiots just stop it!"
Every face in the room, includin' Bob Staley and Jack St. Claire, turned to watch Molly, her red hair bouncin' off her shoulders, storm down those stairs and head straight toward the two men, not stoppin' 'til she parked her five-foot one-and-a-half inches of no-nonsense Irish woman smack between 'em and set her eyes on Bob Staley. She was steamin' and sparkin' and spewin' righteous anger the whole way.
"Just who in smokin' blazes do you think you are, Robert Staley? What in damn perdition are you doin', comin' in here claimin' to own me and ready to kill a man for it. If you ain't dumb as a rock you're sure givin' a good impression of it."
Before Bob could mount an answer, Molly turned her flashin' eyes on Jack St. Claire.
"And what in damn creation are you doin', edgin' him on, all calm and easy-like. Goddamn it, Jack, just when I was thinkin' you was different than I heard, what with your manners and all, you stand here ready to kill this man, knowin' that in his worked-up state he ain't close to matchin' you!"
She paused to take a breath, lookin' between the two men, before turnin' back to Bob Staley.
"Bob, we had fun a couple of times, drinkin' and laughin' and kissin' a little. You asked me if I was your girl, 'n I said yes, 'cause I was your girl at that time. I only meant that I was your girl as long as I was with you. I never meant I wanted to marry you. Hell, Bob, did we even get under the covers together?"
Bob Staley blushed, showing his embarrassment.
"Well no, Molly, but . . . "
"But nothin', Bob. Hell, I ain't slept with any man in this town, includin' Jack. Ain't that right, Jack."
Jack St. Claire nodded, not smilin' exactly, but not frownin' either. Bob Staley was still havin' trouble puttin' the pieces together. He was awful good with a gun, and not slow of mind, but truth was he weren't much of a deep thinker, tendin' to reason in a straight line without worrying too much about the edges.
"But Molly, you was up there with—"
"Lookin' at stereoscopes, Bob. We was all in Hetty's parlor lookin' at stereoscopes she brought back from Kansas City. Hell, we was even eatin' cookies."
Well, Bob thought for awhile and finally nodded his head. He took a mighty big breath, 'n his chest rose and fell with the effort.
"I reckon I was outa line, Molly. I guess an apology is due. You too, Jack. I guess I'm six ways a fool."
Molly softened a bit when he said that.
"Well, nobody got killed," she said, lookin' back and forth. "And I do like the both of you. If I feel like being spoke for, I'll let you know. But right now, we got ourselves another problem."
Just when everyone in the Shady Lady had started to relax, they got all tensed up again. Molly turned around to address the room, with Jack on her left and Bob on her right.
"You may not have noticed, but a lot of these people had been staking bets on which of you'd kill the other one. I think some of them even bet you'd kill each other." Those green eyes surveyed the room.
"I think it's a low-down thing, bettin' on one man killin' another. Seems to me there oughta be a price to be paid for a thing like that. And I've got an idea for it."
All eyes watched as Molly told the fellas at a nearby table to vacate it, looked up at Hetty, who sensed where she was goin' and nodded, then turned back to the crowd. She folded her arms. There weren't no mistakin' her seriousness.
"Every one of you men needs to come up here and put twenty dollars on this table. I mean every single damn one of you. The two men you was hopin' to entertain you by dyin' are goin' to make sure you do." She looked to Jack St. Claire and then Bob Staley. Both men were smilin' now, and nodded. Hetty was smilin' too, sorta nasty-like.
"Wes, Mort, Lester, and you girls, make sure every one of these blood-thirsty dingbat critters is accounted for." Hetty called out from the stairs. "None of 'em gets out of here without paying up." She looked down over the crowd, and she didn't need no clubs or shotguns to convey her determination.
"If any sad sack of you doesn't have it, borrow it from Wes at the bar. He'll keep a record, and you'll damn well pay it back, if you ever want to see the inside of my saloon again. I'll split it between the Pastor at the church and Doc Newsome. And some to my people for having to put up with you vultures. Now get to paying."
And pay they did. One by one they filed by and the pile on that table growed. By the time it was all over, there was over three thousand dollars there. Hetty decided to give fifty to each of the folks working at the Lady, and true to her word, divided the rest of it between the church and the doc, who was owed money by most of the people in those parts, anyway.
That night the Shady Lady was full-up as usual, maybe a little more boisterous than normal. The events of that afternoon were already spreadin' like a wildfire, and creatin' a legend. Jack St. Claire and Bob Staley had shaken hands and looked on the way to being friends. The two of 'em, along with Hetty Lankford and Molly O'Day, was seen that evenin' having dinner above the deadline at the Dodge City Restaurant, along with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Word is, the four of them laughed an awful lot.
And that's the way things happened at the Shady Lady, just south of the deadline in Dodge City, Kansas, on October seventh, eighteen seventy-six, as they was passed down to me. You can believe 'em or not. Up to you. As to me? I believe it. Course, you probably won't put much stock in me, because my name is Becky, and I'm a horse.