The late Brian Garfield wrote some excellent thrillers and a few longer novels, several of which were made into films or TV specials. They include the one we'll look at today, a Western he titled "Wild Times".
The blurb reads, in part:
An aged Western showman reflects over his long and colorful career
Few bother to separate the myth of Colonel Hugh Cardiff from his real life. The nation knows him as a sharpshooter, buffalo hunter, moving pictures pioneer, and one-time proprietor of the greatest Wild West show the nation has ever seen. Some of the stories are true, some exaggerated, and some rank among the wildest of tall tales. But for a man who has lived like Colonel Cardiff, the facts trump the myth. In the spring of 1868, Denver is the richest, wildest city west of the Mississippi. When an overweight Easterner named Dr. Bogardus rolls into town to announce a shooting contest with a $1,000 prize, ears prick up.
I've read the novel many times since I first encountered it several decades ago, and continue to enjoy it. For today's Snippet, I've chosen the shooting match referred to in the blurb, which opens the book when Hugh Cardiff was a young man.
I went into the line fourth position from the left and that was satisfactory. My line judge was a little tiny fellow in a bulky beaver-pelt coat. I shook hands with him and introduced myself. “How’d Bogardus do?”
“Ninety-six out of a hundred.”
“Then he can still be beat.”
“Yes sir,” the little fellow drawled, not giving anything away, but I could see he was amused. “That a Kentucky Hawken?”
“Pretty old one, ain’t it?”
“Pretty near as old as I am.” I stepped forward to take up my position and looked over my shoulder at the boy. “How’s your arm holding out?”
“Fine, sir. We’ve been taking turns.”
“All right. I shoot about five a minute with this old muzzle-loader. Give you a chance to breathe between throws.”
“Yes sir. Thank you, sir.” Boys in those days were polite.
“Let’s go, then.”
I put my back to him and lifted the Hawken, snugged it into my shoulder and tested my footing.
• • •
I saw the ball soar overhead, sun winking along it, and I had time to remind myself the sun glare would be on the left side of the ball now because it was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon. I aimed a fraction to the right of the point of light. When the ball reached its apex against the sky I squeezed the shot and lowered the rifle to reload without bothering to watch the target. I knew I’d hit it.
Paper cartridge, ramrod, percussion cap. Lift the rifle. “Throw.”
• • •
I shot the first twenty without a miss. Behind me a crowd began to gather.
I turned to the throw-boy. “Let’s let the rifle cool down a minute. No penalty for that, is there?”
“No sir. You take all the time you want.” That was the line judge; he was watching me with friendly admiration now.
The rifle was hot in my hands. I saw Caleb Rice in the crowd alongside the barker Cletus Hatch. I walked over to the fence and crooked my finger at Hatch.
“Anybody besides me bet money on me today?”
“Nope. Nobody ever heard of you.”
“I may have given you a fast shuffle,” I said. “You might have heard of me under the name Hugh Smith.”
“I’ve heard that name, yes.”
“What odds would you put on Hugh Smith?”
“About half what I gave you. Except on beating Bogardus. Those odds are the same for everybody.”
“Then change the odds on my five-dollar bet, will you? I’ll feel better.”
“I’m obliged for your honesty.”
I saw Caleb watching me with a speculative and dubious eye.
Then the crowd parted obediently as Doc Bogardus marched forward. He planted his bulk before me, the fence separating us, and looked at me from under his dark hatbrim. He was tugging his thick U. S. Grant beard. I couldn’t be sure if there was a smile behind the beard but in any case I smiled at him. Not cocky or anything. I was just being friendly. All sorts of stories have come down across the years about that first time we met face to face. Now I’m going to write down how it really went.
Bogardus just looked at me for a moment, maybe smiling, maybe not, and I heard someone say, “We got four ninety-sixes so far and we got better than two dozen shooters still to go. Powerful marksmen here today.”
“You watch this big youngster here. Way he’s going he’s like to beat ninety-six. He ain’t missed a ball yet.”
“With an old Kentucky muzzle-load, no less.”
I swabbed out the bore with a cool oiled patch. Loaded her up and glanced at Bogardus. I guess I was waiting for him to say or do something but he didn’t; he just watched me. I didn’t feel any threat coming off him. He didn’t rattle me, nor, I think, did he intend to.
I went back to the line and spoke over my shoulder to the boy. “You ready?”
• • •
There was a corner of my mind, separate from the rest, that kept track of the numbers. Twenty-three was my first miss and I heard a gush of sound from the crowd. I was annoyed because I shouldn’t have missed that one; I’d thought it was a hit, I wasn’t looking at it—I was reloading by the time it hit the ground but I heard it burst on impact and I heard the crowd.
Then I remembered what Caleb had told me. I wet my finger on my tongue and moistened my left ear.
The breeze fluttered cold. Batting the glass balls around, giving them lift. The wind must be freshening.
Now I took more time with each shot, testing the air before I called for the throw.
Down the line the steady racket of gunfire continued. Another expert over to the right somewhere drew some of the crowd off but when I looked back after my thirty-first shot Bogardus was still there, standing like a great black rock, watching with his big dark eyes, and I still couldn’t discern the expression behind the beard.
I shot without missing again until the fifty-third ball. I don’t know what happened with that one. It seemed to jink to the side just as I squeezed the shot. Maybe the wind, but I didn’t feel it on my ear.
By then the crowd had massed again and there was no more talk around me. They watched me in silence. After the sixtieth shot I waved the throw-boy back; the rifle was so hot I could hardly hold it.
Doc Bogardus spoke for the first time in my hearing. His voice was as deep as a cave echo. “Someone bring the lad a bucket of water.”
• • •
My eyes burned from the smoke. My arms were beginning to ache. I propped the rifle upright against the fence and revolved my arms in their sockets to loosen them up.
Bogardus said, “Take your time now.”
“Yes sir. Thanks.”
“Mighty heavy work with a long rifle like that. Started my own career with the same weapon. Hawken Brothers. That was back before the war.”
A youth came up lugging a wooden water bucket; Bogardus waved him forward. “Make way, gentlemen, please. Set it down here, boy, that’s good.” Bogardus leaned against the fence and extended a hand toward me. “Mind handing me that rifle?”
I was uncertain but even then I knew the only way you could find out whether you could trust a man was to trust him and see what happened. I lifted the rifle through the fence. I felt a twinge in my left arm: a warning.
Bogardus took it from me, upended it and unceremoniously plunged the muzzle into the water as deep as it would go.
I was shocked.
Steam sizzled loudly and made a cloud above the bucket before the wind took it away.
Anger lanced through me. I put both hands on the rail ready to vault it.
Bogardus held the rifle upright, muzzle-down in the water. He spoke calmly. “No harm to the rifle, son. My word on it.”
Bogardus said, “Hawken steel can take it. The damage occurs if you heat it up too much, not the other way round. Understand me?”
I suppose I was gawking; I don’t remember replying. Bogardus tested the breech plate with his finger. “Cool enough now.” He lifted it back through the fence. “Run a dry patch through her, then a light coating of oil. Good as new. She starts to heat up again, put her back in the water.”
There was a buzzing murmur back through the crowd. “Never seen the like.” And: “Man must be crazy, hot steel in cold water—bend that rifle like a lariat.” And: “Canny enough from a dude that sees he’s gettin’ beat.”
Bogardus swung around quickly. “I’m betting one hundred dollars the boy makes his first shot. Come on, have I got any bettors?”
The crowd swayed back away from him. Bogardus wheeled again and I saw the contempt in it; now he faced me. “Go ahead, son. Pleasure to watch you work.”
I dried the bore and oiled it, loaded and lifted, and tried to ignore the twinge in my left arm. “Throw.”
I looked back and saw the hard smile in Bogardus’ eyes; now I knew what his smile looked like. I rammed a load home and capped the rifle. “Thank you.”
• • •
Number seventy-four was my third miss. I had to attribute it to a faulty bullet: possibly a bubble in the metal that threw it off plumb. Three down. I had to make twenty-six straight hits to beat the leaders.
Eighty, eighty-one, eighty-two. Shooting slow, shooting steady. Wait for the wind to settle. Eighty-three. The rifle heating up again; I plunged it without hesitation into the bucket.
Bogardus was still at the fence. The last competitors were moving into the line. Rattle of gunfire; acrid stink of powder smoke; no talk at all in the crowd now. My eyes were gritty and raw. My left shoulder was causing real pain by now and I knew it was the old break where Vern Tyree had shot me with the exploding gun. Nothing I could do about it except ignore it.
I pulled the rifle out of the bucket, dried it, oiled it, rammed a fresh load down, capped the lock, settled the butt plate into my shoulder socket.
Take it easy now, just take it slow, there’s no time limit, forget the numbers, take each shot as you find it, one at a time and no thought to anything else, forget the damned pain.
The crowd behind me seemed to vibrate with silence. A steady shrill whistle piped in my ears despite the cotton wadding; it always gets like that after the first half hour or so. I let the rifle hang down at arm’s length and tried to gather strength; moistened my ear and dragged the Hawken to my shoulder.
“Come on over here, Elizabeth, watch this boy. Four to go. He’s hit all but three.”
The glass sphere floated up. Sunlight, getting a bit lower now, rippling off the smooth surface. Red raw grit in my eyes. Throb and twang in the shoulder; it was bad now. Watch the ball. Sudden cold lash of air against my moistened ear. Watch for the jink to the right—feel that gust? Wait for the pause at the top.
Paper cartridge. Ramrod. Cap. Tongue, ear. Lift the rifle. Forget the pain. Easy now.
I didn’t call for the throw. I lowered the rifle and dragged my sleeve across my eyes to wipe away the wash of tears—part of it was pain, part of it was the eyes trying to clean out sulfur irritation. Was that metal getting too hot again? No; not yet. Just take it easy now. Two to go, that’s all. You can do it easy. Eyes dry now, all right. Lift the rifle. Settle down. Good.
I watched that one break. Ninety-nine.
A muted explosion of vocalized emotion from the crowd; and then a hush—in fairness I have to call it a hush. I could hear it distinctly, even through the ringing in my ears, when someone back in the crowd sucked air through his teeth.
Gentle now. The last shot.
I lifted the rifle.
The sphere floated into the sky. The sights lifted to meet it. No wind this time; an easy shot. Curving a bit off to the left there, lead it steady. Turn.
The twinge in the shoulder made me gasp. It passed; but now the ball was falling and I felt the gust against my ear as I squeezed the shot off.
The groan ran through the crowd.
• • •
We had six finalists tied at ninety-six. We drew lots for the sun-side advantage and Fitz Bragg won the shortest straw. Far-left position. Then a Texican, Caleb Rice, me, a Denver sporting man and at the right-hand end Doc Bogardus.
It didn’t seem to alarm him. He came down the line to speak briefly with each shooter. When he came to me he smiled through the beard. “What’s wrong with the arm?”
“Broke it once. Shoulder acts up now and then.”
“Have that seen to when you get a chance. And buy yourself a lightweight repeater rifle for these competitions if you mean to stay in the shooting game. Even as big as you are, you’ll do better if your arms don’t get tired.”
“Good luck to us all, then.” Bogardus went on down the line. Over the years the “feud” between us filled a lot of newspaper space but the fact is that off the shooting line I always liked and admired Doc. He was a gentleman.
I looked to my left. Caleb stood with his eyes on the ground at his feet, a Navy revolver in his hand, waiting for the signal to start. Uneasy, unnerved; it was evident in his stance. I spoke softly: “Hey, Caleb.”
It brought his face around. His eyes came up. I winked broadly at him.
The slow mournful smile pushed the shadows back from his face; he straightened up, breathing deep.
Down at the end of the line Fitz Bragg spat a brown stream of tobacco juice into the ruined grass.
C. S. Roe climbed up on the gazebo. “Your attention please, gentlemen. This is the elimination round. Shooters will fire ten throws each. You know the rules. All right, it appears all contestants are ready? Fire at will.”
• • •
My shoulder gave me trouble and I was late on two of the ten but I managed to hit them before they reached the ground. One of them was so low when I hit it that the bullet ricocheted off the pasture.
That round knocked off the Denver sporting man and the Texican and Fitz Bragg; they each came in with nine out of ten but it wasn’t good enough because they were up against Bogardus and Caleb Rice and me, and each of us made every ball.
It was a surprise to the crowd when Fitz Bragg missed his tenth shot; apparently something went wrong with his needle gun but the old man took it in good spirit and I saw him nodding happily when he headed off to collect his bet winnings from Cletus Hatch. Well-wishers clustered, clapping him on the back; he was a popular man everywhere in the West.
“Second round, three shooters, ready on the line please, gentlemen. From the left: Mr. Caleb Rice of Beaumont, Texas, shooting the Colt’s Patent Navy model revolver, caliber point-thirty-six. Mr. Hugh Cardiff of Mill Springs, Kentucky, sometimes known as Hugh Smith, shooting the Hawken long rifle, muzzle-load, caliber point-forty-six. Dr. George Bogardus of Danville, Virginia, shooting the Henry rimfire repeating cartridge rifle, caliber point-forty-four. At your will, gentlemen, commence firing.”
• • •
On his third shot Bogardus missed.
A shout went up from the crowd but then Caleb missed his fifth shot and it left the prize open to me.
But pain kept jabbing my shoulder and I fluffed my next-to-last shot and it tied the three of us up again; yet another round to go and I doubted my shoulder could take it.
Caleb said, “You had us for a minute there.”
I cooled the Hawken in the water bucket and walked around in small circles swinging my arms in great circles, trying to squeeze the smoke out of my eyes, fighting the dizziness of fatigue and the painful whistling in my ears. It was no help realizing the other two had most of the same difficulties.
Bogardus walked over and stood between Caleb and me. “Gents, I salute both of you. Whoever wins this round, I believe in my heart there are three champions of this meet.”
Someone in the crowd said, “You boys can beat the fat dude. Don’t let him soften you up.”
I glared at them but couldn’t single him out. Bogardus, for his part, made a point of ignoring it. He turned away toward his position and I said, “It’s an honor shooting with you, sir.”
“And for me the same, Mr. Cardiff.” I saw the twitch of the smile behind the beard before he went by.
I dragged the Hawken out of the bucket and swabbed it out.
It was past four o’clock and the sun was well down in the sky, the breezes more fitful than ever. The light was changing; tricky conditions for shooting. Skill really wasn’t the issue any longer; it was a matter of endurance.
The Hawken seemed to weigh a ton. “Throw.”
I was still in this thing; I wasn’t beaten yet.
Load, lift. “Throw.” A hit again and I settled back into the rhythm of it. Load, lift. “Throw.”
I heard an outburst of emotion from the crowd but I didn’t break my rhythm to investigate it; possibly one of the others had missed a shot. I broke my third ball, then the fourth, the fifth. “Throw.” The sixth.
A murmur rumbling through the crowd. Never mind; not my concern. “Throw.” The seventh—a hit. Tears of pain from the arm; I could hardly move it. Moisten the ear. Lift—lift. Aim. “Throw.”
The eighth: off-center but still a hit; I watched that one, watched the fragments of glass twinkle earthward and paused with two shots left to wipe my eyes and swing my arm back and forth before I loaded for the ninth shot.
I was lifting the rifle when a shout burst from the crowd, a great explosive groan—one of my opponents had missed a shot, that was for sure, but I continued the steady rise of the rifle to my shoulder. “Throw.”
Arc of glittering glass, wind on my ear, the shoulder now grinding with steady throbs of pain that weren’t nearly as distracting as the earlier stabs. Squeeze. Take the recoil tight and easy.
Aim, follow its rise, wait for the peak. Sunlight on glass—I could actually see the silhouettes of the Rockies reflected in the glass before it burst into tiny bits and rained across the grass and I heard the earsplitting great roar of the crowd as I turned and plunged the hot rifle into the water bucket and realized, when I looked up at the faces beyond the fence, that I’d won.
A highly enjoyable Western, rather different from the run-of-the-mill novels in that genre. Recommended.