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Journal of the Gun Years
By Richard Matheson
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1991 RXR, Inc.
All rights reserved.
It is my unhappy lot to write the closing entry in this journal.
Clay Halser is dead, killed this morning in my presence.
I have known him since we met during the latter days of The War Between The States. I have run across him, on occasion, through ensuing years and am, in fact, partially responsible (albeit involuntarily) for a portion of the legend which has magnified around him.
It is for these reasons (and another more important) that I make this final entry.
I am in Silver Gulch acquiring research matter toward the preparation of a volume on the history of this territory (Colorado), which has recently become the thirty-eighth state of our Union.
I was having breakfast in the dining room of the Silver Lode Hotel when a man entered and sat down at a table across the room, his back to the wall. Initially, I failed to recognize him though there was, in his comportment, something familiar.
Several minutes later (to my startlement), I realized that it was none other than Clay Halser. True, I had not laid eyes on him for many years. Nonetheless, I was completely taken aback by the change in his appearance.
I was not, at that point, aware of his age, but took it to be somewhere in the middle thirties. Contrary to this, he presented the aspect of a man at least a decade older.
His face was haggard, his complexion (in my memory, quite ruddy) pale to the point of being ashen. His eyes, formerly suffused with animation, now looked burned out, dead. What many horrific sights those eyes had beheld I could not — and cannot — begin to estimate. Whatever those sights, however, no evidence of them had been reflected in his eyes before; it was as though he'd been emotionally immune.
He was no longer so. Rather, one could easily imagine that his eyes were gazing, in that very moment, at those bloody sights, dredging from the depths within his mind to which he'd relegated them, all their awful measure.
From the standpoint of physique, his deterioration was equally marked. I had always known him as a man of vigorous health, a condition necessary to sustain him in the execution of his harrowing duties. He was not a tall man; I would gauge his height at five feet ten inches maximum, perhaps an inch or so less, since his upright carriage and customary dress of black suit, hat, and boots might have afforded him the look of standing taller than he did. He had always been extremely well-presented though, with a broad chest, narrow waist, and pantherlike grace of movement; all in all, a picture of vitality.
Now, as he ate his meal across from me, I felt as though, by some bizarre transfigurement, I was gazing at an old man.
He had lost considerable weight and his dark suit (it, too, seemed worn and past its time) hung loosely on his frame. To my further disquiet, I noted a threading of gray through his dark blond hair and saw a tremor in his hands completely foreign to the young man I had known.
I came close to summary departure. To my shame, I nearly chose to leave rather than accost him. Despite the congenial relationship I had enjoyed with him throughout the past decade, I found myself so totally dismayed by the alteration in his looks that I lacked the will to rise and cross the room to him, preferring to consider a hasty exit. (I discovered, later, that the reason he had failed to notice me was that his vision, always so acute before, was now inordinately weak.)
At last, however, girding up my will, I stood and moved across the dining room, attempting to fix a smile of pleased surprise on my lips and hoping he would not be too aware of my distress.
"Well, good morning, Clay," I said, as evenly as possible.
I came close to baring my deception at the outset for, as he looked up sharply at me, his expression one of taut alarm, a perceptible "tic" under his right eye, I was hard put not to draw back apprehensively.
Abruptly, then, he smiled (though it was more a ghost of the smile I remembered). "Frank," he said and jumped to his feet. No, that is not an accurate description of his movement. It may well have been his intent to jump up and welcome me with an avid handshake. As it happened, his stand was labored, his hand grip lacking in strength. "How are you?" he inquired. "It is good to see you."
"I'm fine," I answered.
"Good." He nodded, gesturing toward the table. "Join me."
I hope my momentary hesitation passed his notice. "I'd be happy to," I told him.
"Good," he said again.
We each sat down, he with his back toward the wall again. As we did, I noted how his gaunt frame slumped into the chair, so different from the movement of his earlier days.
He asked me if I'd eaten breakfast.
"Yes." I pointed across the room. "I was finishing when you entered."
"I am glad you came over," he said.
There was a momentary silence. Uncomfortable, I tried to think of something to say.
He helped me out. (I wonder, now, if it was deliberate; if he had, already, taken note of my discomfort.) "Well, old fellow," he asked, "what brings you to this neck of the woods?"
I explained my presence in Silver Gulch and, as I did, being now so close to him, was able to distinguish, in detail, the astounding metamorphosis which time (and experience) had effected.
There seemed to be, indelibly impressed on his still handsome face, a look of unutterable sorrow. His former blitheness had completely vanished and it was oppressive to behold what had occurred to his expression, to see the palsied gestures of his hands as he spoke, perceive the constant shifting of his eyes as though he was anticipating that, at any second, some impending danger might be thrust upon him.
I tried to coerce myself not to observe these things, concentrating on the task of bringing him "up to date" on my activities since last we'd met; no match for his activities, God knows.
"What about you?" I finally asked; I had no more to say about myself. "What are you doing these days?"
"Oh, gambling," he said, his listless tone indicative of his regard for that pursuit.
"No marshaling anymore?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Strictly the circuit," he answered.
"Circuit?" I wasn't really curious but feared the onset of silence and spoke the first word that occurred to me.
"A league of boomtown havens for faro players," he replied. "South Texas up to South Dakota — Idaho to Arizona. There is money to be gotten everywhere. Not that I am good enough to make a raise. And not that it's important if I do, at any rate. I only gamble for something to do."
All the time he spoke, his eyes kept shifting, searching; was it waiting?
As silence threatened once again, I quickly spoke. "Well, you have traveled quite a long road since the War," I said. "A long, exciting road." I forced a smile. "Adventurous," I added.
His answering smile was as sadly bitter and exhausted as any I have ever witnessed. "Yes, the writers of the stories have made it all sound very colorful," he said. He leaned back with a heavy sigh, regarding me. "I even thought it so myself at one time. Now I recognize it all for what it was." There was a tightening around his eyes. "Frank, it was drab, and dirty, and there was a lot of blood."
I had no idea how to respond to that and, in spite of my resolve, let silence fall between us once more.
Silence broke in a way that made my flesh go cold. A young man's voice behind me, from some distance in the room. "So that is him," the voice said loudly. "Well, he does not look like much to me."
I'd begun to turn when Clay reached out and gripped my arm. "Don't bother looking," he instructed me. "It's best to ignore them. I have found the more attention paid, the more difficult they are to shake in the long run."
He smiled but there was little humor in it. "Don't be concerned," he said. "It happens all the time. They spout a while, then go away, and brag that Halser took their guff and never did a thing. It makes them feel important. I don't mind. I've grown accustomed to it."
At which point, the boy — I could now tell, from the timbre of his voice, that he had not attained his majority — spoke again.
"He looks like nothing at all to me to be so all-fired famous a fighter with his guns," he said.
I confess the hostile quaver of his voice unsettled me. Seeing my reaction, Clay smiled and was about to speak when the boy — perhaps seeing the smile and angered by it — added, in a tone resounding enough to be heard in the lobby, "In fact, I believe he looks like a woman-hearted coward, that is what he looks like to me!"
"Don't worry now," Clay reassured me. "He'll blow himself out of steam presently and crawl away." I felt some sense of relief to see a glimmer of the old sauce in his eyes. "Probably to visit, with uncommon haste, the nearest outhouse."
Still, the boy kept on with stubborn malice. "My name is Billy Howard," he announced. "And I am going to make ..."
He went abruptly mute as Clay unbuttoned his dark frock coat to reveal a butt-reversed Colt at his left side. It was little wonder. Even I, a friend of Clay's, felt a chill of premonition at the movement. What spasm of dread it must have caused in the boy's heart, I can scarcely imagine.
"Sometimes I have to go this far," Clay told me. "Usually I wait longer but, since you are with me ..." He let the sentence go unfinished and lifted his cup again.
I wanted to believe the incident was closed but, as we spoke — me asking questions to distract my mind from its foreboding state — I seemed to feel the presence of the boy behind me like some constant wraith.
"How are all your friends?" I asked.
"Dead," Clay answered.
"All of them?"
He nodded. "Yes. Jim Clements. Ben Pickett. John Harris." I saw a movement in his throat. "Henry Blackstone. All of them."
I had some difficulty breathing. I kept expecting to hear the boy's voice again. "What about your wife?" I asked.
"I have not heard from her in some time," he replied. "We are estranged."
"How old is your daughter now?"
"Three in January," he answered, his look of sadness deepening. I regretted having asked and quickly said, "What about your family in Indiana?"
"I went back to visit them last year," he said. "It was a waste."
I did not want to know, but heard myself inquiring nonetheless, "Why?"
"Oh ... what I have become," he said. "What journalists have made me. Not you," he amended, believing, I suppose, that he'd insulted me. "My reputation, I mean. It stood like a wall between my family and me. I don't think they saw me. Not me. They saw what they believed I am."
The voice of Billy Howard made me start. "Well, why does he just sit there?" he said.
Clay ignored him. Or, perhaps, he did not even hear, so deep was he immersed in black thoughts.
"Hickok was right," he said, "I am not a man anymore. I'm a figment of imagination. Do you know, I looked at my reflection in the mirror this morning and did not even know who I was looking at? Who is that staring at me? I wondered. Clay Halser of Pine Grove? Or the Hero of The Plains?" he finished with contempt.
"Well?" demanded Billy Howard. "Why does he?"
Clay was silent for a passage of seconds and I felt my muscles drawing in, anticipating God knew what.
"I had no answer for my mirror," he went on then. "I have no answers left for anyone. All I know is that I am tired. They have offered me the job of City Marshal here and, although I could use the money, I cannot find it in myself to accept."
Clay Halser stared into my eyes and told me quietly, "To answer your long-time question: yes, Frank, I have learned what fear is. Though not fear of ..."
He broke off as the boy spoke again, his tone now venomous. "I think he is afraid of me," said Billy Howard.
Clay drew in a long, deep breath, then slowly shifted his gaze to look across my shoulder. I sat immobile, conscious of an air of tension in the entire room now, everyone waiting with held breath.
"That is what I think," the boy's voice said. "I think Almighty God Halser is afraid of me."
Clay said nothing, looking past me at the boy. I did not dare to turn. I sat there, petrified.
"I think the Almighty God Halser is a yellow skunk!" cried Billy Howard. "I think he is a murderer who shoots men in the back and will not ...!"
The boy's voice stopped again as Clay stood so abruptly that I felt a painful jolting in my heart. "I'll be right back," he said.
He walked past me and, shuddering, I turned to watch. It had grown so deathly still in the room that, as I did, the legs of my chair squeaked and caused some nearby diners to start.
I saw, now, for the first time, Clay Halser's challenger and was aghast at the callow look of him. He could not have been more than sixteen years of age and might well have been younger, his face speckled with skin blemishes, his dark hair long and shaggy. He was poorly dressed and had an old six-shooter pushed beneath the waistband of his faded trousers.
I wondered vaguely whether I should move, for I was sitting in whatever line of fire the boy might direct. I wondered vaguely if the other diners were wondering the same thing. If they were, their limbs were as frozen as mine.
I heard every word exchanged by the two.
"Now don't you think that we have had enough of this?" Clay said to the boy. "These folks are having their breakfast and I think that we should let them eat their meal in peace."
"Step out into the street then," said the boy.
"Now why should I step out into the street?" Clay asked. I knew it was no question. He was doing what he could to calm the agitated boy — that agitation obvious as the boy replied, "To fight me with your gun."
"You don't want to fight me," Clay informed him. "You would just be killed and no one would be better for it."
"You mean you don't want to fight me," the youth retorted. Even from where I sat, I could see that his face was almost white; it was clear that he was terror-stricken.
Still, he would not allow himself to back off, though Clay was giving him full opportunity. "You don't want to fight me," he repeated.
"That is not the case at all," Clay replied. "It is just that I am tired of fighting."
"I thought so!" cried the boy with malignant glee.
"Look," Clay told him quietly, "if it will make you feel good, you are free to tell your friends, or anyone you choose, that I backed down from you. You have my permission to do that."
"I don't need your d----d permission," snarled the boy. With a sudden move, he scraped his chair back, rising to his feet. Unnervingly, he seemed to be gaining resolution rather than losing it — as though, in some way, he sensed the weakness in Clay, despite the fact that Clay was famous for his prowess with the handgun. "I am sick of listening to you," he declared. "Are you going to step outside with me and pull your gun like a man, or do I shoot you down like a dog?"
"Go home, boy," Clay responded — and I felt an icy grip of premonition strike me full force as his voice broke in the middle of a word.
"Pull, you yellow b----d," Billy Howard ordered him.
Several diners close to them lunged up from their tables, scattering for the lobby. Clay stood motionless.
"I said pull, you God d----d son of a b----h!" Billy Howard shouted.
"No," was all Clay Halser answered.
"Then I will!" cried the boy.
Before his gun was halfway from the waistband of his trousers, Clay's had cleared its holster. Then — with what capricious twist of fate! — his shot misfired and, before he could squeeze off another, the boy's gun had discharged and a bullet struck Clay full in the chest, sending him reeling back to hit a table, then sprawl sideways to the floor.
Through the pall of dark smoke, Billy Howard gaped down at his victim. "I did it," he muttered. "I did it." Though chance alone had done it.
Suddenly, his pistol clattered to the floor as his fingers lost their holding power and, with a cry of what he likely thought was victory, he bolted from the room. (Later, I heard, he was killed in a knife fight over a poker game somewhere near Bijou Basin.)
Excerpted from Journal of the Gun Years by Richard Matheson. Copyright © 1991 RXR, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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