|Welcome To The Bullpen
He arrived with the darkness, his sorrel cantering down a bustling main street on which mule carts plodded like migrating buffalo. To the west, a dying sun had turned El Paso’s adobe world to shimmering gold and, as the rider’s shadow lengthened, it fell like night on the cowboys and vaqueros who strolled from saloon to saloon in search of pleasure. At the Butterfield Stage Office, the newcomer stopped momentarily to glance at the notice board. The date was April 10, 1881.
Behind the rider now were the vast and silent Texas plains, over which he had ridden for four long days, watched only by bands of Comanche who still prowled ghost-like and resentful through a world once their own. Now an army of railroad workers toiled night and day to build an iron road that would bring the white man’s future in its wake.
Outside the marshal’s office, the rider dismounted and tied his sorrel to the nearby hitching post. The town before him seemed to teem with a squalid vibrancy, its streets filled with cavalry troopers and cowboys, store clerks and Chinese launderers. The marshal’s office he found to be deserted, its cell doors open and its gun racks empty. As he lit a fire in the stove, he waited patiently for his new employers to scurry out from behind their counters and desks.
Within minutes they had assembled, middle-aged men with anxious faces and nervous hands. An imposing figure in black suit and long white beard stood up and, in cautious tones, Mayor Joseph Magoffin welcomed Dallas Stoudenmire to El Paso. Next to stand was Judge Blacker, a grave and thoughtful man, who assured the new marshal of the support of all decent people in the town. He was followed by George Carrico, the middle-aged Times’ editor, who warned of the desperadoes who must be faced down if El Paso were not to go the way of Dodge and Hays. His speech, like the others, was met with murmurs of approbation mixed with warnings about the growing malevolence of the Manning brothers. And it was at this point that Mexican rancher, Juan Ochoa, rose and informed the new marshal that two vaqueros have gone missing while in search of rustled cattle.
Stoudenmire listened in silence. He had heard many such speeches in his years as a lawman public declarations of support that he knew would turn to condemnation once the killing started and the blood flowed. Of more pressing concern were the missing Mexicans and he wondered if a range war would soon spill onto El Paso’s streets.
A hundred yards down Main Street, Jim Manning had watched from an upstairs window of the Pony Saloon as the newcomer had arrived and he had looked on bemused as the town’s leading citizens had rushed like pilgrims to behold their newest saviour. On the bed behind him lay a sleeping female form, its bare shoulders luminous in the moonlight, and he was about to return to the warmth he had forsaken when there was a knock at the door. On opening it, Manning saw John Hale and George Campbell standing spectral in the light beyond. Both men were agitated, their faces flushed with alcohol and anger.
Campbell stepped uninvited into the room and crossed to open window. ‘Well, is it Stoudenmire?’
‘It’s Stoudenmire all right’.
‘So what are we going to do?’ Hale’s breath smelled of liquor and his voice was trapped in a perpetual whine at life’s injustices.
Manning was silent. There would be time enough for judgements, he told himself. Time enough for the decisions that would lead to life and death.
‘Tell my brothers I want to see them.’
An hour later, in the hardening darkness, the new marshal walked cautiously down streets whose names seemed to mark a fault line between two different Americas, two different visions of the West. Music and light tumbled drunkenly from the saloons and cantinas that jostled for custom on the main thoroughfares, whilst, in the narrow alleys, whorehouses and opium dens pandered to still darker needs.
As he made his first circuit of the town, he could see disembodied faces hanging like Chinese lanterns from half-opened doors and darkened windows. Rounding the corner that led to Almeda, he came across two cowboys tussling over the affections of a saloon girl and he parted them with the simple threat of a night in the cells. On Stanton he stumbled over a drunk lying unconscious on the boardwalk and, after sobering him with a bucket of water, he sent him on his way. On San Antonio, an impromptu horserace was stopped by a firing a pistol into the startled night sky, and a shooting match outside the Coliseum Theatre ended when he brought his Colt down on an offender’s head. Law and order had at last come to a reluctant El Paso.
As the shooting and shouting died away, Stoudenmire listened in the silence for the sounds that would tell him death was near.
At that very moment, a block away, two figures waited in a darkened alleyway, checking each passing shadow for the glint of a metal star. At last they saw their target appear, a tall man silhouetted against the brightly lit facade of Paul Keating’s saloon, but the sound of a buckboard caused the figures to step back and they merged once more with the darkness.
That night an uneasy calm settled over El Paso, with only a distant roar of thunder to trouble the dreams of its citizens.
In his office next to Thompson’s hardware store, Stoudenmire listened to a clock ticking down the seconds until dawn, an oil lamp casting a waxen glow over the wanted posters that hung like faded wallpaper on the adobe behind him. Occasionally he would sip from a tin coffee mug, a half-empty bottle of whiskey on the desk before him, and with each gulp he willed the liquor purge the fear that never quite left him now, that had followed him from Socorro to El Paso.
It was almost three. Watched by the clock’s cold face, Stoudenmire stood up and began to practise the mechanics of drawing and cocking his Colt, repeating each action over and over, until they were almost as smooth, almost as fast, as they once had been. In his mind he saw Bill Hickok once more, waiting with fading eyes and slowing reflexes for Jack McCall to fire a bullet into the back of his skull and end the nightmare. Someday, somewhere, his turn too would come.
To relieve the gloom, he extracted a creased photograph from his shirt pocket and held it up to the light. On it was the image of a young woman dressed in a evening gown, her bare shoulders and pale arms as delicate as any statue’s. Perfect and ageless, she reminded him of a life before the killings had begun.
Over at the Pony Saloon Jim Manning, too, was also awake, a pack of soiled cards in his hands. He turned them one by one, as if in contemplation of the fickle nature of chance, but his mind was troubled by thoughts of what would happen when the bodies of the two vaqueros were found, their limbs splayed on the bloodstained grass, their eyes staring at a coldly indifferent sky.
The sudden tread of feet on the boardwalk outside led Manning to pause, and he looked up to see two figures enter and prop their rifles against the deserted bar. As they poured themselves a drink, Manning returned to his game and dealt another card.
It is often said that dawn is when a town opens its eyes and, standing before a sunlit water trough into which he had just plunged his face, Stoudenmire wondered if El Paso could see what it had become and what would now have to be done. His thoughts, however, were interrupted by the arrival of a party of armed Mexicans, Juan Ochoa at its head. For a few moments there was a terse exchange of words, then the horsemen galloped off in search of their missing companions.
That evening Stoudenmire dined in the Globe restaurant in the company of his deputy, Gus Krempkau, and El Paso Times editor George Corrico. The next day’s paper lay folded on the table, its date 12 April 1881, its manila front page announcing the trial of one William H Bonney for murder.
Stoudenmire stood up and carefully tied down his gun rig. ‘You’ll have to excuse me, gentlemen. I have a pressing matter to attend to’. His companions nodded, then exchanged anxious glances as the marshal walked away. Krempkau’s offer of help was passed off with a nonchalant wave of the hand.
Once outside, the marshal gasped for air as though drowning in an invisible sea. Not now, he thought. Not here. Then, nerves steadied, he set off in the direction of the Pony saloon. Instinctively people began to gather on the boardwalk or took up vantage points beneath the elm trees that stood sentinel each night over the town’s sleeping inhabitants.
Through the lead glass of the saloon window, George Campbell saw Stoudenmire approach and glanced back to where the Mannings sat playing faro. In response, each man reached for the certainty of gunmetal, then awaited the marshal’s arrival.
Seconds later, the batwing doors swung open and Stoudenmire stepped inside. A seductive smell of liquor filled his nostrils and the off-key notes of an out-of-tune piano echoed in his ears. Before him, two dozen patrons sat hunched at small circular tables, whilst a solitary saloon girl circled to entice the lonely to a room upstairs.
As Stoudenmire made his way to the bar, Jim Manning sauntered over. ‘Welcome to El Paso, marshal. Buy you a drink?’
Slowly, almost casually, Stoudenmire placed a dollar on the bar next to an empty glass. ‘No thanks’.
A subdued silence settled the on nearby tables and, as the two men faced each other, bodies began to position themselves strategically around the room. Stoudenmire’s right hand rested casually on his Colt, and Manning wondered if he would be able to reach his own hidden pistol unobserved.
Suddenly John Hale rose to his feet with a drunken stumble. ‘Marshal, let me give you a piece of advice, just so you’ll know how it is here in El Paso.’ His voice was slurred, his eyes red-rimmed from whiskey and lack of sleep. ‘You’ve got one job to do and one job only and that’s to keep to hell out of the way. Do that and you’ll have no trouble.’
Stoudenmire straightened. One sudden move, one careless mistake, would lead to bloodshed. But he could not back down. Not now. Looking directly at Jim Manning, whose right arm was no longer visible, he smiled with undisguised contempt.
‘I’ll say this only once, Manning. Things have changed in El Paso. Break the law and you’ll have me to deal with - and if you come against me I’ll kill you and all your lousy back-shooters, so help me God.’
Manning did not speak, did not take his eyes off Stoudenmire as he tried to calculate the odds. If they were lucky, they could kill Stoudenmire before he killed too many. But looking around the room - at his brothers, at the cheap gun-hands he had brought in from all over southeast Texas - he sensed that no-one was ready to die. Not yet. So with great care, he brought his two arms down to his sides and said nothing. For a moment, an uneasy stillness filled the room and then Stoudenmire began to edge back carefully towards the door, his eyes fixed firmly on the scene before him. It was only when he was outside, when he was enveloped by the welcome darkness of a crisp spring night, that he became aware of the violent trembling in his hands, of the cold sweat that beaded his forehead. Tonight, as so often before, he had been lucky.
The morning of April 12 1881 dawned heavy with anticipation. In the slowly warming light, Stoudenmire buckled on his gun belt and hurried outside to see armed vaqueros riding past, the hooves of their horses pockmarking the still-slumbering earth. In their midst a buckboard bore two blanket-covered bodies solemnly along, and soon Mexican women were appearing from doorways and sidestreets, intoning prayers for the dead, their faces covered by mantillas, their hands clutching rosaries.
As the bodies were carried into a funeral parlour, a bell began to toll from across the Rio Grande. Minutes later, from the interior of the Pony saloon, a piano replied with mock solemnity. Stoudenmire began checking his pistols and, as he did so, a single bullet fell to the ground. Stooping to pick it up, he caught sight of a small Mexican boy with solemn eyes who reminded him of a childhood he had left far behind.
An inquest was held and adjourned, while in the streets outside, heated exchanges erupted between outraged Mexicans and supporters of the Mannings. As scuffles began, Juan Ochoa confronted Hale and Campbell, and Stoudenmire was forced to step between them, his eyes following their every move. Gradually however, the crowd began to disperse and normality returned. As Gus Krempkau moved the bystanders along, Stoudenmire sighed. No-one would die. Not today.
And then, without warning, a drunken John Hale drew his Colt. Too late Stoudenmire heard the click of the gun hammer and before he could reach for his own pistol, a shot - born of smoke and flame and hate - sent Gus Krempkau tumbling backwards. Women’s screams filled the sudden vacuum created by fleeing bodies, and as more shots followed, Stoudenmire instinctively drew and fired his own Colt. In the crossfire Juan Ochoa was hit and collapsed to the ground. Scarcely more than two seconds had passed.
As Hale dived behind an adobe pillar, Stoudenmire felt the warm breath of a bullet against his neck. Then, steadying himself, Stoudenmire waited calmly for Hale’s face to re-appear. When it did, he fired a single shot and saw Hale collapse to the boardwalk where he lay motionless.
Less than three seconds had now passed. In the eternity that followed, Stoudenmire waited for further threats to emerge. He could not see the Mannings, but Campbell was there, his gun drawn and so, with cold detachment, Stoudenmire aimed and fired. The stricken Campbell staggered, his hands clutching at his stomach. Then he sank slowly to the ground, his arms outstretched as though searching for the life he had just lost.
No-one moved. No-one seemed even to breathe. Blood lay everywhere, creating an obscene landscape of tiny lakes and streams from a shattered normality. But no more shots rang out and soon friends and supporters of the dying men began to gather round.
Colt still in hand, Stoudenmire knelt and turned over the body of Juan Ochoa, his hand reaching to close the dead man’s eyes. Then, still on his knees, he made his way like a medieval penitent to where Gus Krempkau lay dying, and there he whispered something that was lost forever in the storm around him.
On the far side of the street, three figures watched on in silence, their anger held in check only by an awareness of death’s proximity. As their angry supporters tended to the bodies of Hale and Campbell, bearing them aloft towards an undertaker’s, the three Manning brothers walked back into the Pony Saloon. There would be another time, another place.
A shocked calm now fell on El Paso’s main street. For a few moments, Stoudenmire stood as though trying to comprehend the forces that had been unleashed in those five deadly seconds. There would be no going back, not now, he thought. For it would always end like this. And suddenly he had a vision of himself, lying dead in a darkened street, surrounded by the hostile and the curious. With a last despairing look at the bloodstained earth, he walked away without a backward glance. But as he holstered his Colt, he knew that death was following close behind like a shadow, and would one day catch him up.