Prose Header

Staged Play

by Gary Clifton

The dust-covered rider reined a bay mare up to the Western Star in the late afternoon heat and pushed his way into the smokey saloon. The din in the establishment was deafening: whisky-saturated men were talking, and a piano player doing his best to play even louder.

Sheriff Fred Mattox was squeezed in amidst the glut of drunks at the bar. The rider tapped the sheriff’s shoulder. “Uncle Fred, just seen one a’ them Alfords ridin’ my stolen sorrel mare.”

The old man turned. “Chester, them is three tough hombres. What was said? They comin’ here?”

“I told them they stole my horse and said I was comin’ here to tell you.”

Fred held up his gnarled hands. “Chester, I ain’t capable of much serious gunplay, which is bound to happen if we brace them boys. They follow you?”

“Not I know of.”

“They will, Chester, and kill the both of us. Might be time to run for it, get outta town.”

“Man, I never expected my Uncle Fred Mattox to back down. It’s 1879. Times are changin’.”

“Changed?” the sheriff said, breathing hard. “Livin’ beats endin’ up on Boot Hill in a pine box, boy,” .

A tall, handsome well-dressed man in a ten-gallon hat standing next to the sheriff leaned closer and said, in a strong British accent, “Chaps, perhaps I might help?”

The sheriff regarded the man with skepticism. “You gonna take on the Alfords, boy?”

“In a word, sir, yes.”

The sheriff said, “Man, I recognize you. You’re in the stage play the Western Star has been puttin’ on the past few nights. You a gunfighter, too?”

“Well, sheriff, I spent several months with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. I still have my six guns.” He extended a manicured hand. “Percival Quinn at your service, gentlemen.”

“Sir, them Alfords will let the air outta you,” Chester said.

The actor smiled before downing his drink. “It’s been my experience that street toughs often initiate a fracas in anger, then find their gun hands are not nearly as steady and reliable as they’d thought. An opponent who takes his time and hits what he’s shooting at is far more reliable.”

The sheriff asked, “What’s your price for stepping in? We ain’t got much money.”

“Only a small price, gentlemen. First, pick up my bar bill here at the Western Star. It’s less than ten dollars.”

Both the sheriff and Chester nodded. “What else?” the sheriff asked.

“It’s rather embarrassing, sheriff, but it’s a matter of a very inconvenient warrant for my arrest for borrowing the widow Muldoon’s jewelry back in Kansas City. A malicious woman. I returned all of her jewelry... Well, almost all.”

“And?” The sheriff stared at the actor.

“I’d like you to telegraph the U.S. Marshal’s office in Kansas City and report my untimely death here in Scraggler’s Gap and that I was buried in Boot Hill.”

Both Chester and the sheriff nodded.

Percival walked backstage. Chester and the sheriff agreed the Englishman would be killed by the Alfords within the hour, anyway. The bar bill was manageable.

* * *

The sun had set when three suntanned, cold-eyed men, dusting off trail dust, pushed through the swinging saloon doors. Each was wearing a tied-down Colt. The room grew quieter at their appearance. They quickly spotted Chester and his uncle at the end of the bar.

As they approached, a tall man, dressed in black, topped with a black wide-brimmed hat appeared from the rear. His blue eyes pierced the smokey saloon air beneath the hat brim. Visible beneath his black hip length coat were a pair of ivory-handled pistols, butts facing forward. He strode toward Chester and the sheriff, ignoring the Alfords.

“You called my brother a horse thief.” The taller of the three men leaned close to Chester’s face.

The man in black stepped between them and said a soft western drawl, “Oh, sir, I see you know my nephew, Chester.”

“Who the hell are you?” the bad man growled. The remaining pair of brothers stepped back and assumed classic gunfighter poses.

“Name’s Earp. Have you also met my uncle, Sheriff Fred Mattox?”

“Earp?” The first brother exhaled sharply, stepping back. “Any kin to Wyatt Earp?” The other two brothers eased slightly backward.

“That would be me, pardner.” The tall man casually brushed back his coattails. “On the way to meet my brothers in Tombstone. Just stopped by here to see my kinfolk. Who’s askin’?”

“Uh, Mr. Earp, my name’s Alford, Heck Alford. These are my brothers, Hiram and Caleb. We have a small spread out west of here.”

“What brings you gents to town this evening? Gonna watch the play?”

“Uh, no, Mr. Earp, we ain’t got time. We was jus’ returnin’ a stray mare what wandered up to our corral. We understand she musta strayed from our neighbor Chester’s place. She’s tied up at the hitchrail out front. If that’s all, sir, we’d be leavin’.”

“You really Wyatt Earp?” Hiram Alford sneered.

The man in black whipped out a Colt and fired across the room. A wall candle bounced to the floor forty feet away. Men hit the floor. The piano stopped.

The three Alfords squeezed out the door in a jammed cluster.

The sheriff cautiously gave the man in black an up and down.

“It’s still me,” Percival said, smiling through his British accent.

The sheriff stared in disbelief. “Had no idea you could shoot like that.”

The piano player approached, his derby askew, and dropped a wad of something unidentifiable in Percival’s hand. Percival handed him a silver half-dollar. The man melted into the crowd.

The sheriff asked, “What—?”

Percival opened his hand to show a candle with a long string attached. “Just showing my aim with assistance from my old friend, the piano player.”

The sheriff nodded. “Fool stunt, but gutsy. When you pullin’ out?”


“Telegram will be on the way to Kansas City by noon, Mr. Earp... er, Percival.”

Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton

Home Page