Mark Steven Long
In which we learn the history of the West comprises swindlin', cussin', spittin', drawin' iron... and highly trained circus animals.
There wasn't a meaner gunfighter in the West than Albert Spung. His eyes were slits that opened onto hell; when he looked at you, you could swear Satan himself was about to possess your soul. His trigger fingers were callused serpents that sparked death whenever they coiled. Even his piss smelled strong -- that's the kind of man he was.
The sun was beating down on him like a good woman with sense when he rode into Temporary Town. Nothing stirred. Even the tumbleweeds were flat, collapsed by the heat. The only thing moving was Spung's horse, a smoky brown mare. She danced through the dust like there was no heat at all, chittering away like a bird. Her name was Rhododendron the Happy Horse. She had once been a star attraction in a circus, until the owner gave her to Spung as payment for killing a clown.
Spung rode down the main street, looking for a place where he could wash the trail grit out of his mouth. He saw a sign that said DUSTY BOB'S SALOON -- UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT, then stopped and hitched Rhododendron to the post in front of the place. The mare nuzzled him. "Git outta muh face, horse," he growled. Rhododendron shook her massive head, nickered happily, and smiled at him with horse love.
Spung went inside and approached the bar. "Whut'll you have, mister?" asked the bartender as he rubbed at a glass with a rusty cloth.
"Gimme a Gag Reflex," Spung muttered. As the barkeep went to work, Spung turned and surveyed the room.
A player piano, its insides obviously rearranged during a brawl, sputtered the same broken tune. Five trail-fresh cowboys sat around a large table in the center of the room playing cards.
"You got a three?" said one, a giant beefy mass of hair.
"Go fish!" shrilled the skinny cowpoke sitting across from him.
"Yew lyin' sack of shit!" snarled the first cowboy as he stood up and drew his gun.
The skinny cowboy went for his six-shooters, but he wasn't fast enough. The beefy man's hog-legs spit steel death, and the card cheat was thrown back into the wall by the force of his killer's brutal bullets. The giant then picked up the dead man's card hand and studied it. "Goddammit, I knowed he had a three."
He looked up and saw Spung. His leathery face slowly responded to the effects of recognition. "Hey, yore Albert Spung, the gunfighter!" he exclaimed. Turning to the others, he said, "Now boys, you are lookin' at the surliest gunfighter in the whole damn West. Why, I seen him gun down Freckles the Clown in cold blood!"
"Albert Spung?" The barkeep had finally returned with his drink. "The man with the strongest-smellin' piss in the Panhandle? Our outhouse is closed to you, mister."
The gunfighter whirled around and -- faster than the flies could blink -- fired three slugs into the barkeep's gut. The bartender dropped like a sack of old potatoes.
"Practicin' for the job, Mister Spung?"
Spung looked up and saw two men standing between the saloon's double doors. One was gaunt and sallow, and he struggled to hold his Winchester aloft. His partner was as solid as a granite wall, with the face of a petrified rock and limbs of John Henry steel. His bulging muscles strained the fabric of his pink taffeta dress.
Spung spit into his Gag Reflex and quickly guzzled it down. Keeping his eyes on the two men, he banged his glass on the bartop and barked, "Refill." Since the bartender was still dead, one of the cowboys still living jumped up and scuttled behind the bar.
"So," he said to the two men, "if yore lookin' to get hitched, the preacher ain't here right now." He guffawed at his own joke.
"Yes I am," said a tiny voice from the other end of the room. Without looking, Spung casually grabbed a glass and threw it in the voice's direction. There was a crash and a gurgled moan.
"Watch yer mouth, Spung," the spare-looking rifleman said, "or I'll kick your ass and I'll kick it clean. Not on the left cheek or the right'un, either. Straight up the middle is where I'll aim."
"And then I'll pump buckshot into every God-damn hole in yore body," Spung said.
The scrawny man hugged his rifle and shifted from one foot to the other. "That ain't the point," he said. "I'm not talkin' about that at all. All I'm sayin' is, I'm fixin' to plant my foot up your pipe. I'm just gonna do it, an' it'll be done. Don't matter what happens after."
The gunfighter grinned, for this was the kind of frontier logic that appealed to him. "I like yore style, kid," he said. "Whut kin I do fer ya?"
"I'm Spackles Genofsky," said the lean man, "and this here is Clem Velasquez." He indicated his partner.
"Charmed," Clem rumbled, his dress rustling.
"We was sent to fetch you by the gent what hired you," Spackles said. "He told me to mention the twenty sheep with warts."
At the word "twenty," they began hearing a steady clop clop clop from outside. Rhododendron the Happy Horse, following her circus training, was counting to twenty by pawing the ground with her front hoof.
Spung rubbed his chin as he ruminated. "Twenty sheep with warts" referred to an incident known only to him and the man who hired him. Spung had never met the man; a go-between had arranged everything in advance. "Let's go outside," he said. "I wanna shut thet horse up."
He followed Spackles and Clem out into the street. Rhododendron had worked herself loose from the hitching post and was just finishing her count as a small, appreciative audience boisterously counted along. As they applauded, she leaped up on her hind legs, shaking her head and grinning all the while.
"Rhododendron!" Spung called out. "Play dead!"
The mare instantly flopped over on her side in the filthy street, coating several bystanders with dirt. "She'll stay thet way 'til I say other," Spung told Spackles and Clem. "Now, when do I meet 'im?"
"You don't," Spackles replied. "Word's already spreadin' about you bein' in town."
"He's right," Clem said as he picked a burr from his dress. "Those two--" he nodded toward two cowboys hurriedly riding out of town, " -- work for the Old Man."
"The Old Man," Spung repeated.
"Your victim!" Clem laughed.
"So now the Old Man'll know you're comin,' " Spackles said. "All the more reason to move now."
"I don't like this!" Spung thundered. "Things're movin' too fast!" Rhododendron snorted and wiggled an ear but didn't get up.
"You already got paid half," Spackles countered. "After you plug the Old Man, you get the rest. Simple as that. We got the money ready to give you. Take it or leave it."
Spung wordlessly checked his six-shooters, the Derringer in his sleeve, the Colt in the small of his back, and a .25 that he'd put down the front of his pants. "Let's go, then," he said. "Up, horse!"
Rhododendron leapt into the air, whinnying with the joy of life and unbridled love for her master. She danced a tiny jig before Spung managed to mount her. After a warning glare from him cut Clem's laugh off at the knees, they were on their way.
J. Formaldehyde Trent -- The "Old Man" -- owned every piece of real estate in town. He wouldn't sell any of it to anyone for any amount of money, although he'd had plenty of offers. Instead, he rented out the land and the houses and the office buildings and the stables to the townsfolk. Everyone owed him rent on the first of the month, no exceptions. The Old Man never thought twice about evicting people who missed payment.
There wasn't a family or business that didn't have to move at least once every other year or so. The Old Man would raise the rent too high. Or he wanted to tear it down and put up a newer, bigger building in its place. There wasn't a day when someone in Temporary Town wasn't in the process of moving somewhere else.
Spackles related all this to Spung as they rode out to the Trent homestead. Spung was to kill Trent so all the Old Man's holdings would pass to his weak-willed daughter, who could be persuaded to sell them off to the townsfolk.
"We just want a permanent place to live," Spackles said. "What the hell's a man, after all, if he ain't got land to call his own?"
"A tenant," Spung growled. Rhododendron happily nickered for emphasis and executed a brief foxtrot.
After a few miles they stopped at the edge of a vast ranch. Verdant green pastures stretched to the horizon like a lazy tomcat whose grassy fur bristled in the breeze. A giant house slept peacefully in the distance beside a shaded tree.
"This's his spread," Spackles said. "You'll have to go up there alone -- I can't be seen with you. If his daughter tumbles to me, that's it."
"You should be so lucky," Clem said haughtily.
"Whutever yew say," Spung said to Spackles. "Yore payin'."
He checked his six-shooters again, then prodded Rhododendron, who neighed a brief aria, and proceeded up the road to Trent House.
When they reached the small path leading to the house, Spung dismounted and sauntered up the path and through the front door. He strode through the great hall, his spurs ringing on the polished wooden floors.
Choosing a room at random, he stalked in and found an elderly man seated behind a large desk. The man wore a shabby three-piece gray suit with as much dignity as he could muster, even though his body had obviously shrunk over the years and was becoming lost inside it. The man looked up and said, "You must be Albert Spung."
"You must be the Old Man," Spung growled.
"I have the good fortune to be J. Formaldehyde Trent, if that's what you mean. Don't!--" the Old Man held up a hand as Spung reached for his irons, " -- don't draw your weapons, Mr. Spung. If you make a further move in that direction, you will die where you stand."
Without taking his eyes off Spung, he cocked his head toward a large door behind him. "Morgo!" he called out. "Step out here, please."
The large door opened with a sickening creak. Into the room stepped the biggest man Spung had ever seen, bigger even than Wallem Ford, the epileptic logger of the Oregon wilds. He had to double over and turn sideways to get through the door Spung had thought was so large. When he straightened up, it was as if a smoldering volcano had suddenly centered itself in the room.
"Albert Spung," chortled Trent, "allow me to introduce Harold Morgo -- my champion!"
Spung stared up at a cement block of a face topped by stubbled hair and supported by a thick, bullish neck. Eyes of steel-bolt blue bore into Spung, looked him up and down as if their owner were sizing a hunk of fresh meat. His torso served as solid wrapping for a continent of massed, muscled flesh. Mighty-thewed arms hovered precariously at his sides; legs of untold power stood astride the earth, balancing it and holding it in its orbit.
The man-mountain drew a deep, terrifying breath and expelled it in Spung's direction. The blast threatened to rip Spung's hair from his head. He tensed and waited for the hulking brute's inevitable threats.
"Mr. Spung?" the brute said in a surprisingly cultured tone.
Spung arched an eyebrow. "Yeah?"
"I must say, sir, that this is a genuine pleasure." Morgo held out a large, meaty hand, which Spung carefully shook. "I have always wanted to meet a gunfighter of your stature -- and if I may say so, Mr. Spung, you occupy the highest echelon of those artists who practice this noble craft."
"Whut?" said Spung, confused.
"Excuse me," Trent said from behind his desk, "but you two should be trying to kill each other."
"With all due respect, Mr. Trent," Morgo said, bowing to the Old Man, "it is a rare occasion indeed when I am able to `talk shop,' so to speak, with a colleague -- especially one of worthy note such as Mr. Spung." He patted Spung respectfully on the shoulder, and Spung could hear his collarbone creak under the strain.
"In fact," Morgo continued, "Horace Smeld of the New York Tribune once called Mr. Spung's draw, quote, `A frontier ballet which melds flesh and instinct in one brief, unforgettable dissiliency of steel and fire.' He was writing, of course, of Mr. Spung's now-legendary circus showdown--"
Spung suddenly whipped the Colt from behind his back and shot Morgo in the left eye. The giant's head jerked back, then forward. His good eye fixed itself on Spung.
"Astonishing," he croaked, then toppled. But he could not fall to the floor because of his massive size. His head struck the rear wall and his neck bent inward, lodging it in place; his feet dug into the now-splintered floor. Spung snickered as he looked at the corpse, now jammed tightly between wall and floor.
Trent slowly stood, a broad smile pasted on his face. "That wasn't exactly according to Hoyle, was it?" he said in a high-pitched voice. "I was expecting more of a... gunfight. A proper showdown."
Spung holstered his Colt and casually drew one of his six-shooters. "`Tweren't no gunfight," he said. "Just part o' muh job." He indicated Morgo's cigar-store-Indianlike cadaver. "Usedta be part o' his job. Showdown's got nuthin' t'do with it."
"Well," said Trent, "so much for your `frontier ballet.' A-henh."
"Yup," said Spung, displaying his teeth in a final, terrible smile. "So much." With that, he emptied his iron into Trent. As he detested slow motion, it was over in an instant. He kicked the scrawny body to make sure all the life had been taken out of it.
"Daddy? I heard a noise and -- oh!"
Spung turned and saw a golden-haired woman, smartly dressed in a cowhide vest, workshirt, and faded dungarees. Her light blue eyes danced from Spung over to Morgo, then to what she could see of the Old Man behind the desk. "You've killed Daddy!" she squealed.
A commotion sounded outside the door. It flew open and a crowd of townsfolk spilled into the room, led by Spackles and Clem, who was now carelessly attired in a housecoat and jodhpurs. "`We were at the saloon in town,'" Spung carefully recited to Trent's daughter, "and we heard a noise.'" He threw a wink in Spung's direction.
"This man shot my father," Trent's daughter said, pointing at Spung.
"Oh, Dearie Mae," Spackles went on. "That is truly awful. Does this mean you'll sell us our homes?"
The woman shrugged. "Okay," she said. "It was Daddy who wanted to own everything. I just wanted to move to Reno and deal blackjack. Now I can!" she added, brightening.
Everybody moved outside into the sunshine -- except for Spung, who tapped Spackles on the shoulder and kept him from lifting his Winchester.
"All right," Spung growled. "It's time I got paid. When do I get muh money?"
"You'll know when the time's right," Spackles replied. "Follow me."
He stalked through the house and out the front door, and Spung followed. The entire town seemed to have assembled before Trent House. To one side, Trent's daughter was showing her card-shuffling tricks to a group of awestruck cowpokes. Directly in front of Spung, Rhododendron the Happy Horse was jumping up and down on a mangled scarecrow (borrowed from a nearby farm) as the crowd clapped and laughed its approval. Spung's jaw dropped when the mare looked to Clem for applause. It dropped even further when Clem blew her a kiss and she neighed ecstatically.
"Rhododendron! Sit!" Spung yelled. The horse abruptly fell back on her rump, her forelegs propped up in front of her and her hind legs skewed at impossible angles.
Spung stuck a piece of tin in his mouth and began grinding away at it. "Whut the hell are you doin' with muh horse?" he demanded.
The muscular transvestite rubbed his chin. "Just doin' her old circus act," he said. "Y'see, there was this routine where a villain would threaten a fair damsel in distress. But before he could visit his evil designs upon her maidenly flesh, Rhododendron would come to the rescue an' stomp that evildoer into the ground. It was always a real crowd-pleaser."
Spung spat the chewed-up ball of tin into a nearby picnic basket. "And how d'you know so damn much about all thet?" he said.
"Simple." Clem looked at him. "I was the Bearded Lady."
"Holdit!" Spung sputtered. "You was in thet pony show with--"
"That's right!" Clem said. "Freckles the Clown was my brother! I hired you to kill Trent -- and then get my revenge!"
Before Spung could react, Clem pointed at him and yelled, "Stomp that villain!" to the horse. Within a cat's heartbeat, the animal was upon Spung, pounding him mercilessly with her front hooves, and she didn't stop until his pulped flesh was thoroughly mixed into the dust and dirt.
The crowd gasped. "Say, that was pretty nifty," said one voice.
"Do that again!" said another.
"That man's rights have been violated!" cried a third.
Trent's daughter ran up and embraced Rhododendron. "Oh, what a nice horsie!" she cooed. "I love you, horsie!" The mare cocked her head and looked upon Miss Trent with all the horse love she could muster.
Clem planted a kiss on the horse's nose. "C'mon, darlin'," he said. "Let's show them how you dance the mambo."
Mark Steven Long (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer and editor from New York City. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 1993 for his short story "The Nutbob Stories." His work has appeared in National Lampoon, Reed, Paragraph, Wax, Fiction Forum, and the online zine THOTH. This is his second appearance in InterText. The first chapter from his novel-in-progress, "Punchy Fights For His Country," can be found on the PureFiction web site at <http://www.purefiction.com/>.
InterText stories written by Mark Steven Long: "At the Dead Mother's Bend" (v6n1), "Temporary Town" (v7n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Mark Steven Long.