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´╗┐Title: The Fastest Gun Dead
Author: Grow, Julian F.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Fastest Gun Dead" ***

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                         The Fastest Gun Dead

                           BY JULIAN F. GROW

                     The skeleton had the fastest
                      draw west of the Pecos. Too
                     bad he was such a lousy shot.

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
               Worlds of If Science Fiction, March 1961.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


He was a big man, broad of shoulder, slim of hip. His Stetson was
crimped Texas-style, over slate-gray eyes that impassively had seen
much good and more evil in their twenty-six years.

He stood in the saloon door with the dust of the streets of Dos
Cervezas Pequenas still swirling about scuffed, range-rider's chaps.
His left hand held open the weatherbeaten swinging door. The right
hovered over the worn peachwood butt of the Colt holstered on his right
thigh.

The slate-gray eyes, emotionless, swept the crowd bellied up to the
bar, and stopped at one man. When he spoke it was flat, but with the
ring of tempered steel, and every man but that one drew back out of
range. "I want you, Dirty Jake," the big man said. "Now."

Dirty Jake shot him into doll rags, naturally.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dirty Jake Niedelmeier was, you might say, the most feared ribbon clerk
in the Territory. Easily the most.

I remember him from the early days, from the first day he came to town,
in fact. I remember because he got off the stage just as I was leaning
out the window nailing up my brand-new shingle, and my office was and
still is upstairs next to the stage depot. I was down on the boardwalk
admiring it, all shiny gold leaf on black like the correspondence
school promised:

                          Hiram Pertwee, M.D.

His voice broke in on me, all squeaky. "Beg your pardon," he said,
"where's the YMCA?"

Well, that isn't the usual sort of question for here. I turned around.
There he was, a scrawny little runt about knee-high to short, wearing a
panama hat, a wrinkled linen duster and Congress gaiters.

He wasn't especially dirty then, of course, only about average for a
stage passenger. He kind of begrudged his face, with little squint
eyes and a long thin nose, a mustache like a hank of Spanish moss and
just about chin enough to bother shaving. Under his duster he wore a
clawhammer coat, the only alpaca one I ever saw, and I never from that
day out saw him wear any other. He stood there looking like he'd never
been anyplace he really cottoned to, but this might just be the worst.

I was just a young squirt then and not above funning a dude. I told him
the YMCA was around the corner, two doors down and up the back stairs
at the Owl Hoot Palace. He nodded and went the way I told him.

That was, and still is, Kate's Four Bit Crib. The girls there wear
candy-striped stockings and skirts halfway to the knee, and their
shirtwaists are open at the neck. Dirty Jake didn't speak to me for
three years.

He wasn't Dirty Jake then, though, just Jacob Niedelmeier, fresh from
selling ribbons and yard goods in Perth Amboy, New Jersey and hot to
find a fortune in the hills. He'd been a failure all his natural life.
This was a new beginning, for a man 34 who was already at the bitter
end and looking for the path back. Gold was the way, he figured. He was
going to get it.

But he didn't. He was back flat broke and starving in four months.

He spent the next seventeen years behind the notions counter at
Martin's Mercantile, selling ribbon and yard goods and growing old two
years at a time. I think it tainted his mind.

Leastways, from the time I got to know him, some fourteen years gone,
he's been what you might say, a queer actor. At first, when the store
closed at sundown he'd take off for the near hills with a pick and a
sack, still seeking for color somebody might have missed. After a while
he didn't bother with the gear. He just moseyed around all that rock
mostly, I suppose, to be away from people.

Truth to tell, people were beginning to avoid him anyway. He was
getting kind of gamy over the years, and cantankerous generally.

       *       *       *       *       *

Maybe it's kind of funny we got more or less friendly but doctors and
ribbon clerks aren't so all-fired far apart. They both have to do with
people and their ways, and like to get shut of both now and then. Every
couple of months I'd go along with him up in the hills, to get the sick
smell out of my nose. Night air and a night sky can be pretty fine if
you've been looking at tongues and such long enough.

Going out like that, we didn't say much. I preferred it that way since
Jake Niedelmeier was a boob.

A smart man can get on tolerably well with an idiot if both just have
sense enough to keep their mouths shut. One time he didn't was when he
brought along a bottle of rye. He got started and was going on to beat
the band, yapping about how life was a cheat and someday everybody'd
respect Jacob Niedelmeier, until finally I lost patience and told him
that while I treasured our association beyond pearls I'd chuck him off
a cliff if he didn't shut the hell up. I was nice about it, and after
that it was like I said, tolerable.

Well, sir, about two years ago he came into my office while I was
darning up some fool borax miner that'd got himself kicked square in
the bottle on his hip. Jake stood in the corner picking his teeth while
I finished. After the borax miner limped out he spoke up.

"Comin'?" That was all the invitation he ever gave.

"I guess," I said. I sloshed the suture needle in a basin, gave it a
couple of swipes on the hone stone and threw it in my satchel. That
miner had a tough rind.

Jake went out first. I closed the door behind us, not locking it,
of course, because our night marshal was kind of my relief surgeon
whenever I was on calls. He was a Secesh hospital orderly during the
Rebellion. He was better with a saw than with sewing, but he could tie
up most wounds well enough to do till I got back.

Jake and I set out south up the mountain trail, but pretty soon it hit
me he was heading someplace considerable more directly than we usually
did.

Sure enough, he took off at an angle from the trail after a bit. We
struck up into some fairly woolly country. He wasn't following any
sign I could see, at least not by moonlight, but he kept going faster
until I was plumb out of wind.

We were in the hills overlooking Crater Lake when we came to kind of an
amphitheater in the rocks, some twenty feet across. He stopped at the
edge of it and stood staring in, silent and breathing catchy.

Me, I just chased my own breath for a while, then looked too and
saw what he was aiming at. Right in the middle, shining pale in the
moonshine like nothing else does, was a pile of old, old bones. Jake, I
saw, had seen it before. It was scaring him yet.

       *       *       *       *       *

Old bones, sir, are still bones. I've seen and set my fill. But after I
got a good look at these they scared me too.

There were four skeletons altogether, all nicely preserved, and only
three of them were men. Indians, I mean. You could tell that from the
shreds of buckskin. Two of them still had weapons near their right
hands: one a stone knife, the other a lance. And the top of each of the
three skulls had been shot clean away.

At least, half of the top had, and the same half on all three. Almost
the entire os frontale and ossa parietalia on the left side was gone
on each one. I hunkered down to see closer, while Jake stood back and
shook.

I struck a sulphur match and saw something else about those three
redskin skulls. The edges where the bone was gone weren't fractured
clean like a bullet or a club would do. They were charred.

The three were sprawled around the fourth skeleton and that was the
one gave me the vapors. It was more or less man-shaped. But it wasn't
a man, that I know. I don't believe I care to find out what it was.
Instead of ribs there was a cylinder of thin bone, and it had only one
bone in the lower leg. What there was for a pelvis I've never seen
the like, and the skull was straight out of a Dore Bible. There was a
hatchet buried in that skull.

The bones of the right arm were good and hefty, and it had two elbows.
The left arm was about half the size--not crippled, but smaller scale.
Like it was good for delicate work and not much else.

About ten inches from the widespread six fingers of its right hand
was what you knew right off was a weapon even if it did look like an
umbrella handle.

I was just reaching down to touch it when that fool Jake made his move.

He'd been standing behind me, closer I bet than he'd ever got before,
staring down at that fourth skeleton and making odd noises. I tell
you, it was something for a medical man to see. Suddenly he grunted
like he was going to be sick. He snatched up a femur from one of the
Indians and swung it up to smash that fourth skeleton to smithereens.

Well, sir, quicker than the eye could see the umbrella handle smacked
itself into the palm of that bony hand, sending fingers flying in six
directions. It hung there in the air against what was left, trained
dead on Jake's head, and it hummed.

The femur dropped from Jake's right hand like he'd been shot. He
hadn't, though, because he was still wearing his skull and by that time
running. Soon as he did, the umbrella handle flopped over and just lay
there, the hum dying away.

When it stopped the place was pretty quiet, because Jake was off in
the rocks and I was going over some things I wanted to say to him
immediately I was able to talk again. That fourth skeleton had the
fastest draw I'd ever seen.

Jake stuck his head up from behind a boulder. "Doc," he said, "why
didn't he shoot?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The question wasn't as all-fired pip-witted as Jake was capable of. It
took me upwards of three weeks to work out why a weapon that could
draw and aim itself didn't shoot too.

I'd heard a little clink when the weapon flew into the skeleton's hand.
It came from a metal disk that lay in its palm, toward the heel of the
hand.

The disk was thin and only about as big as a two-cent piece. A mate to
it was set in the butt of the umbrella handle, convex where the other
was concave.

Going at it kind of gingerly, I slid the disk in my vest behind my
watch and put the umbrella handle in my right coat pocket.

It was a key-wind repeater with a gold hunting case, that watch, and
I worried about it every step down the mountain. I walked a good four
hundred yards behind Jake all the way back into town, just to be on the
safe side. We didn't linger, either. We wanted lights.

By the time I got the two objects locked in my rolltop my heartbeat in
anybody else would have had me telling the sexton to start his hole. I
prescribed bed for me, told Jake, who hadn't hardly even drawn breath
the whole time, to go to hell and retired.

       *       *       *       *       *

Next day a squabble came up over some borax rights upcountry. I didn't
get to open that rolltop for a time. Then one early morning coming back
in the buggy from a house-call in Pockmark, forty-odd miles north, I
got to worrying again at the umbrella handle and those dead Indians.

Seems like four, five times a week some chunkhead hunkers down hard
with his spurs on. When I got to the office that night there was one
waiting--a bad one, Spanish rowels--and Jake was sprawled in my chair,
picking his teeth with my spare scalpel. I patched up the chunkhead,
took the scalpel from Jake and rinsed it off and watched him suck his
teeth for a while. It began to look like he was going to be stubborn.
So finally I said: "Say, Jake."

He grunted. "Jake," I said, "I think I've got that dingus figured." He
snuck a glance over at the desk so I knew he knew what I meant, but he
was busy pretending that wasn't what he came to talk about.

"I think it's a gun that can read minds like a gypsy," I said. Jake
still looked bored, so I took the umbrella handle out of the rolltop
and waved it at him. He dove off the chair and started rolling for the
door.

"You damn fool," I said, "it won't go off." I was reasonably certain
it wouldn't, but I laid it back down by the disk gently anyhow and sat
in the chair. I've only got the one chair, on the theory that anybody
who isn't bad enough to lie on the table is well enough to stand. Jake
edged over and stood like a short-legged bird on a bobwire fence. "It
kin whut?" he said.

"It can read minds," I said. "You were going to bash those bones. The
gun knew it and trained square on your head. You remember?"

He remembered. "And those Indians," I went on. "You remember them? The
left side of the head on each of them was blown off."

I hauled down a roller chart of the human skeleton, first time I'd done
that since I don't know when.

"This up here is the brain," I said. "We don't know a hell of a lot
about it, but we do know it's like a whole roomful of telegraphers,
sending messages to different parts of the body along the nerves.
They're like the wires. This left hemisphere--right here--sends to the
right side of the body. Don't fret about why, the nerves twist going
into the spinal cord.

"Okay. We know, too, that the part of the brain that sends to the arm
is right here, in the parietal lobe. Right under the chunk of skull
that was shot off on those three Indians."

"Shaw," Jake said, perching on the table. The old billy-goat was
beginning to get impressed, even if he didn't have any notion of what I
was talking about.

       *       *       *       *       *

I didn't have exactly much notion either, but I kept on. "The brain
works by a kind of electricity, same kind as in the telegraph batteries
at the depot. This gun," I tapped the umbrella handle and Jake started
off again, but caught himself, "has some sort of detector, a galvanic
thermometer that senses electrical messages to the nerves."

From here on in it was pure dark and wild hazard. "Obviously," I said,
"whenever one of those signals goes from this cerebral motor area here
in the left hemisphere down to make the weapon hand move, it must be a
special signal this gun was built to catch. Just like a lock is made
for one particular key.

"And near as I can figure, the gun has to be able to tell when that
move coming up is going to be dangerous to the man holding it. Stands
to reason if it can tell when a brain's signalling a hand, it can tell
too if that brain is killing-mad. Some people can do that, and most
dogs.

"So, if it senses murderous intent and a message to the weapon hand to
move, it moves too, and faster.

"It homes on this disk like a magnet right into the hand of the gent
that owns it, and aims itself plumb at the place the signal is coming
from." I tapped the chart. "Right here."

I poked the gunk out of a corncob, packed it and lit up before going
on. Jake stared at the umbrella handle like a stuffed owl.

"Now, that fourth skeleton we saw sure as hell isn't human. He isn't
from anywhere on this green earth, or I miss my guess. Might even have
something to do with Crater Lake there, years ago. But we aren't likely
to find out.

"But we do know that he fought three Indians that probably jumped him
all at once. And he killed every one of them with this gun before he
fell."

That brought Jake up short.

The Territory is kind of violent generally, and anybody or anything
good along that line would be bound to have the sober respect of a
ninny like Jake.

I dug up an old glove, and used spirit gum to stick in its palm the
little disk from the skeleton's hand. I pulled the glove on my right
hand, and stood up with my hand about a foot over the umbrella handle.

"Okay," I said, "kill me."

       *       *       *       *       *

He was so orry-eyed by then he damn near did it just to be obliging.
But then the recollection of the night on the mountain, and the three
Indians with their heads shot off, sifted through and he shied off.
"Hell no," he hollered, "I seen that thing go before! I ain't about to
get my head blowed to bits!" And he went on.

Well, it took me the best of two hours. I showed him the two studs on
the underside that most likely were a safety device. I explained how
probably the gun wouldn't go off unless somebody was holding it with
a finger between those studs, which was why it didn't shoot when it
went into the skeleton's hand that night. I finally got him by telling
him if I was right, we'd wire the fourth skeleton together, take it
back East and earn a mint of money on the vaudeville stage showing the
fastest cadaver in the West.

"Mr. Bones: Faster than Billy the Kid and Twice as Dead," I said we'd
bill it. Jake, he thought that was a lovely idea, and decided to go
along.

Fourteen times that eternal jackass raised his right arm at me, while
I held my own gloved right hand over the weapon. But he didn't have
any real heart for it, and fourteen times the gun just lay there. Then
I got a mite impatient, and kicked him in the kneecap. That fifteenth
time he was truly trying.

Skinny as he was he'd have driven me clear through the floor, except
that umbrella handle jumped into my glove and aimed dead at his
forehead, snarling like a cougar. More correctly, the left side of his
forehead. If I hadn't braced my index finger out stiff, that fifteenth
time would've had him a dead man.

Jake froze like a statue and hung in the air staring at the gun,
snarling away in my hand. Finally I pulled the glove off with the gun
still stuck to it, and flung it on the desk.

Then Jake gave me the sixteenth, and by the time I got up again he was
gone and the gun and the glove with him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Next morning the borax squabble blew up again. What with miners getting
stomped I didn't get to bed for a week, much less have a chance to find
out where Jake and that damned weapon had lit out for. By the time
I did, it was too late. Jacob Niedelmeier, the ribbon clerk, after
seventeen years was on his way to glory as the legendary Dirty Jake.

I got the start of the story from a drifter, name of Hubert Comus. He'd
got into kind of a heated discussion in a saloon south a ways that
ended with him and this other man going for their hardware. Hubert
got his Merwin & Bray .42 out and, being a fool, tried fanning it. Of
course it jammed and he laid the heel of his hand open clear to the
bone.

Twasn't the hand bothering Hubert, though. Like most, the other man
missed him clean, but when the barkeep threw them both out Hubert lit
sitting on the boardwalk and took a six-inch splinter clear through his
corduroys.

While I was working on him he told me about Jake.

A man, it seems, had turned up in a little settlement called Blister,
about two days down the line. Nobody noticed him come in, except that
he was wearing one glove, a shiny clawhammer coat and Congress gaiters.
The general run in the mining camps doesn't wear Congress gaiters.

He got noticed, though, when he showed up in a barroom wearing a
pearl-gray derby with an ostrich plume in the band, and carrying a
rolled-up umbrella under his arm. The little devil had stuck the shaft
of a regular umbrella in the muzzle of the skeleton's weapon.

It turned out he'd bought the derby that the storekeeper there had
planned to be buried in. Where the ostrich plume came from I never did
find out.

"He come right in the swingin' door an' stood there," Hubert said over
his shoulder, "lookin' at the crowd. Purty quick they was all lookin'
right back, I kin tell you. That feather fetched 'em up sharp. Take
it easy back there, will you, Doc? Then Homer Cavanaugh, the one they
called Ham Head, he bust out laughing. He laughed so hard he bent over
double, and the rest of the boys was just beginnin' t'laugh too when
the little feller picked up a spitoon and dumped it down Ham Head's
neck.

"The boys got mighty quiet then. Hey, easy, Doc, will you? Ham Head
straightened up and his face went from red as flannels to white, just
like that. He stood glarin' at the little feller for a couple of ticks,
openin' and closin his fists, and then that big right hand went for the
Smith & Wesson in his belt.

"Well, it was a double-action pistol and had a couple notches in the
grip, but Ham Head never cleared it. I never even seen the little
feller draw, but there was Ham Head fallin' with half his noggin shot
away. Gently, will you, Doc, gently!

"The little feller stood leaning on his umbrella, lookin' down at him.
'What was that man's name?' he says. 'Ham Head Cavanaugh,' somebody
says back. 'Ham Head Cavanaugh,' the little feller says, 'he's the
first.' Then he shoves the umbreller back under his arm and goes out.
We never saw him again.

"Some say it was a bootleg pistol he used, or a derringer in his
sleeve. And some say he had a pardner with a rifle in the street, but
there wasn't nobody there. I was standin' as close to him as I am to
you, Doc, and I swear--it--was--that--um--breller--OW!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Ham Head Cavanaugh was the first. I had kind of a personal interest in
Jake and his weapon, so I kept track. There was Curly Sam Thompson, Big
John Ballentine, Redmeat Carson, Uriah Singletree and twelve others
known of, all dead within eighteen months. Any man Jake could hoorah
into a fight. With never a chance to get his right hand on iron before
his head gave the signal and got blown off. He took them all on. And he
never lost--because he couldn't.

Jake was king-o'-the-hill now, all right. He had the success he yearned
for.

Yet when he came back to see me last April it wasn't to brag. He was
in trouble. I looked up from a customer, a damn fool that'd sat on a
gila monster, and there he was, sneaking in the door bare-headed like a
whipped hound, not the cock of the walk in the whole Territory. He slid
into the back room like a shadow, and the man I was working on never
even knew he'd come.

When I went in afterward the lamp was out, the shade was down and he
was in a corner, nervous as a jackrabbit an eagle just dropped in a
wolf den. "Buried my derby under a pile of rock up in the mountains,"
he whispered. "Look," and he held out his glove.

It was plumb worn out. The little metal disc was hanging on by a
strand of spirit gum, and the fabric of the palm was in shreds.

I looked at him for a minute without saying anything. He was still
wearing the clawhammer coat, over B.V.D. tops, but it looked like he'd
been buried weeks in it and dug up clumsy. He had on greasy rawhide
breeches and battered cowhand boots for shoes. He had a month's beard
on his lip and he stunk.

This here was legendary Dirty Jake, no question about it.

"Get a new glove," I said.

"Nope," he answered, "no good. Last week in Ojo Rojizo I took the
glove off to scratch and right then a man braced me. He threw me in a
horse-trough when I wouldn't fight. I want you to fix me up good.

"I want you to open my hand up and set the dingus just under the skin,
and sew it up again. Knew a feller did that with five-dollar gold
pieces cuz he didn't like banks. Worked fine till he got a counterfeit,
and it killed him.

"I'll lay low in the hills till the hand heals. No problems after that."

No problems? Maybe so, but I'd been doing some thinking. Still, I kept
my mouth shut and did what he wanted, and he slunk off with no thanks.
Don't guess I really had any coming.

After he left I got out my tallybook and ticked off the men Dirty
Jake had killed: One Eye Jack Sundstrom, Fat Charlie Ticknor, Pilander
Quantrell, Lobo Stephens, Alec the Frenchman Dubois, some jackass Texas
nobody even knew and the rest, all men whose brains had telegraphed a
special signal to Jake's gun before it reached their own right hand.
Well, there was a new pistolero in town.

A month and a half later I was craned around, trying to lance a boil of
my own, when out of the corner of my eye I saw Dirty Jake go by under
my window. He'd dug that hat with the ostrich plume out from under the
rocks, his hand was healed, he was swinging his umbrella and he didn't
so much as look up. He was headed for the Owl Hoot Palace. I decided
the boil'd wait.

Less than five minutes later I heard the shots, two of them. A second
later Jubal Bean, swamper at the Owl Hoot, came pounding up the
boardwalk and hollered in the door:

"Doc, better come quick. Dirty Jake just took a couple slugs in the
chest and he never even got to draw!"

I took my time. "It was just a matter of odds," I said. "Who got him?"

"The new one," Jubal said, "the man they call Lefty."

       *       *       *       *       *

Well, a couple more weeks to bleach, a little wiring, and I'll be
heading East. Look for the billboards:

                               MR. BONES
                     The Fastest Draw in the West
                      "Faster than Billy the Kid
                          and Twice as Dead"
                             presented by
                            HIRAM PERTWEE,
                                 M.D.

All I've got to do is figure how to keep getting mad at Jake.





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