CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
From An Archive of the Lives of Retired Gunslingers
Christopher Hellwig


Oxskin Murphy,
a.k.a. Meriwether Byron Murphy


Oxskin Murphy was born to a poor Oklahoma cattlehand and his wife, and was so legally named Oxskin by his father, his mother having died during childbirth. In a squalid cottage on the fringe of the large ranch on which he worked, Mr. Murphy intended to rear his son as a gunslinger, and, indeed, Oxskin’s first revolver and holster were given to him on his sixth birthday. From that moment, it became Oxskin’s duty to practice his draw and shot, in obedience to his father’s wishes, often late into the evening, and often on days when most youngsters were free to do as they pleased, and so often, it is said, that by the age of ten Oxskin could hit, without a tremor in his hand or tear upon his cheek, the beak from a horned lark from one hundred yards on the quick-draw. Still, Mr. Murphy’s aim was to be the father of a true gunslinger, a killer of men, an ambition whose success he had little time to relish when, on the boy’s sixteenth birthday, after donning the tanned ox-hide duster given to him by his father that very day, and amidst the bleak festivities of the occasion, Oxskin Murphy put a bullet through each of his father’s eyes, leaving him hunched over, dead at their modest table, bleeding into a thin slice of sweetened corn cake. Oxskin then left Oklahoma, riding West—keeping one step ahead of the law, as he would do until the very end of his life—for New Mexico, a journey which would leave at least twelve dead in the Texas Panhandle, each victim, ranging in age from four to sixty-seven years, shot in cold blood on his or her birthday, and each gathered around the table with family and friends. By the time Oxskin Murphy reached New Mexico, the smell of weeks of travel, of the sweat and filth festering beneath the ox-hide duster, had stuck fast to Oxskin, for the lad, barely a man, had learned little in the way of hygiene from his father, cared nothing for his own appearance, and seemed to not be bothered at all by, or to be perhaps even proud of, the distinctive, nauseous odor which would very soon become a kind of professional calling card in those first months following his arrival in New Mexico, announcing the attendance of Oxskin Murphy, the ever-uninvited guest of countless birthday parties of men, women, and children, just as the first glass was lifted in toast, or the first bit of sugary cake was taken in by the toothless yap of a birthday-babe, and just before the honored guest, the birthday boy or girl, received a bullet from Oxskin’s revolver, the same revolver presented to him by his father on his sixth birthday, the revolver from whose barrel would rise the faintest whirl of gray smoke, to tangle with the rising ribbons of smoke from the huffed birthday candles, and to disappear as surely and as vaporous as Oxskin himself. Birthday announcements became rare in the newspapers, circulars, and town bulletins across the territory; still, Murphy proved to have an uncannily keen ear, or nose, for fiestas, and, while less frequent, for Oxskin persisted in his bloody social calls despite the best efforts of sheriffs and deputy lawmen, birthday parties were considered by the Public Health Officer of the Territory of New Mexico—and by the Governor, upon whose commissioning authority he acted—to be a matter worthy of official statute, and were duly criminalized within the borders of the territory, an ordinance which would last for nearly five years, and which would unhappily coincide with a period of cattle wars and unrest in the territory during which there was little joy in New Mexico. The Public Health Officer’s policy did prove to be effective, as the weeks following its enactment saw an immediate decline in birthday slayings, and subsequent months an increasingly steep downward trend, until, finally, a month passed without a single appearance of Oxskin, and nothing was heard of Murphy in New Mexico thereafter. The delivery of an outstanding warrant for the outlaw’s arrest remained the sole charge of many lawmen, and a fervent ambition for some who had been in attendance at one birthday party or another spoiled by Oxskin, and it was a small group of these men who, not until many years later, finally caught up to Murphy in the basement room of a tenement house in San Francisco’s Chinatown—and the lawmen knew it to be him for, despite his pleated trousers and pressed collar, and despite his barbered, graying hair, and despite the paper hat atop his head, and even through the scent of fine, laundered wool and perfumed macassar oil, they recognized that same ancient, traveled odor which had made the man infamous— where the marked man sat in the company of a severe, unhandsome woman in full, matronly dress at a short wooden table, on which sat, beneath the glow of numerous tiny candles, a half-eaten pink birthday cake. Upon the intrusion of the lawmen, Murphy, his fingers smeared with icing, reached for his right hip, and the lawmen, guns already drawn, shot him dead. Oxskin Murphy was buried in a grave marked simply with the name to which his outstanding accounts at a number of hotels, bakeries, and novelty stores across San Francisco had been charged—Meriwether Byron Murphy, Esq. In a report given to the San Francisco authorities by the small group of New Mexico lawmen who shot the man of the hour down, it was admitted that Murphy was not, in fact, and clearly upon investigation of his still warm body, reaching, as the first man to pull the trigger had thought, for his revolver, but rather, tucked in his hip pocket, a small, festive whirligig.


Sergio Ricci,
a.k.a. Romeo Ricci


Sergio Ricci, known in the early gambling towns of Nevada for his dashing good looks, his unmatched charm, his fluency in the amorous verse of the Greeks and Romans, and known for these things even by the time he grew his first moustache, and known later as one Romeo Ricci, after having outdrawn no less than fifty men, most cuckolds of the most defeated temperament, each a rival for one or another lady’s affections, at the age of twenty-five found that he had grown weary in his new-found maturity of frivolous pleasures, and so set out to make his fortune as the leader of a train-robbing gang. The Romeo Gang, comprised of the most unbeautiful of brigands from across the state—weak-chinned fellows with vapid eyes, scabby facades, and lacking utterly in the niceties of the Ars Amatoria—under the guidance of Ricci, and posing no threat, by virtue of their hideous countenances, to the conquests of their swashbuckling captain, perpetrated the most successful and daring series of passenger line stick-ups in the recorded history of the West. According to a number of reports given by passengers, railroad employees, and members of the Bighorn Security Group to the Board of Directors of the Rock-Rose Railroad Corporation, then an upstart luxury operator providing a passenger line between Carson City and Sacramento, notable for its innovations in the comforts of rail travel, particularly its poached pheasant breast, the Romeo Gang typically struck shortly after the dinner hour, derailing its targets, just as coffee and brandy were being served, with small charges of explosives, after which the surviving passengers would be escorted out into the desert by Ricci’s hideous accomplices and there encounter Romeo Ricci himself—steadying a rearing white stallion, or poised as if for a photograph, his delicate hand tucked between the brass buttons of a velvet vest, or trotting his steed regally and tipping his hat, brushing his dark locks from his forehead, winking at the many captive ladies (who swooned even as Ricci’s brutes relieved them of their lockets and earrings), smirking at the frazzled gentlemanly passengers (humiliated to be stripped of their monocles and money-clips)—who, once he had overseen the collection of valuables, on exhibition for all—gentlemen, ladies, homely comrades—would make love to the locomotive, and upon completion write in rouge along the side of her cars the words Qui finem quaeris amoris. The Directors of the Rock-Rose Corporation, even having lost the majority of their fleet to the conquests of Romeo Ricci, nonetheless pressed on in their venture, purchasing a design for a new locomotive, chosen for its ingenious use of lines (each inspired by the camber of a parted lip), and inaugurating its Nevada-California route one May morning with a naming ceremony, after which she would be known, per a majority consensus of stockholders, as Betty, and after which, for years to come, she would be the venue of every lady’s most preferred entertainment en route to Sacramento as, once the windows of the dining car were opened wide, arias sounding out in the clearest tenor were heard from the surrounding hills along Lake Tahoe. In a small leather diary—found in the pocket of an unidentified middle-aged baggage attendant, one of the many victims aboard Betty’s final run, cut short by a kitchen fire which spread first to the dining car, then to the passenger cars, and finally to Betty herself—the following entry was made on the same day, thirty years before, of Betty’s first run:

 

I heard her, panting as she came around a tall hill, and when she came into view I called the boys off, and only then could I hear, through her restless side rods, the profound hunger of her firebox, and the unquenchable drive of her boiler flues.
                                                                                          —SR

 



Bill Waters,
a.k.a. Bill Amaro


In the mine shafts within the perimeter of the former town of San Amaro, CA—not intended to be a town at all to begin with, being originally the eremitic residence of one Bill Waters, then a reformed gambler, forgotten gunslinger, and upstart prospector, later known widely as Amaro Bill, Bill Amaro, or San Amaro Hisself—there was, by God’s Will, a great and unending bounty of a curious golden, sulfurous froth, which appeared first as a tiny bubble at the point of Amaro Bill’s pick, soon percolated up from between the rocks to flood Bill’s narrow, ineptly hacked mine shaft, and which, nearly from the moment of Bill’s discovery, by Word of God’s Own Mouth, and of Bill’s, attracted a great plenty of the county’s vagrants, rolling stones, greenhorns, rustlers, and madcaps. San Amaro, over the course of mere weeks, grew from the lonely site of Bill Amaro’s makeshift shack, tucked amidst the sparsely vegetated crags of Eastern California, into a booming shanty town of lean-to tents positioned proximately to the openings of a complex network of mine shafts, each foaming over with said curious substance, whose fumes had been discovered to have an intoxicating and often melancholic effect on those who would care to, or by chance, respire them. Bill became the de facto political authority, taxing the townsmen of San Amaro by harvesting their moustaches, which, unkempt upon the dull-witted faces of the languorous miners, grew to a length and thickness suitable to be woven, every other Sunday, into a variety of goods—predominantly rugs and foppish caps—to be loaded into cargo wagons, driven recklessly to nearby trading posts, and bartered for cases of canned succotash. Bill Amaro also was considered the undisputed spiritual leader of the settlement. Often delivered in the form of koans (one of which, the following, still survives: If a canary is caged in the bellows of an accordion, and the accordion is buried in Argentina, what will a pretty girl, wading in a shallow stream in China, imagine is tickling the bottoms of her feet?), his catechism encouraged in his flock a state of perpetual intellectual confusion and espoused the virtues of casual, harmless violence. Worship services, held every weeknight, featured Bill Amaro’s sermon, above all, punctuated by the half-hearted yelps of the congregation, the townsmen gathered in small, sluggishly squirming piles, pinching and turning the flesh of their neighbors. At the height of San Amaro’s prosperity, the town may have supported a population of up to one thousand men—so large a town, in fact, that it attracted the attention of the Peahen Traveling Bawdy-House, a subsidiary of the Peahen Corporation, which, against the wishes of Bill Amaro, pitched a small tent complex on the outskirts of town, amidst an overgrowth of wild buckwheat flowers. The arrival of the traveling bawdy-house is often credited as the beginning of the end of San Amaro, for two reasons: a) The Peahen girls, already having by this time made their fortunes in more traditional mining sites, required as payment the moustaches of their clients (it is understood that many of these girls, once their features had become broad and hardened, and after having traveled for many years with coffers stuffed with moustaches of every possible length and style, migrated Southeast, to Texas, where they disguised themselves as men from St. Louis and became oil barons of the shrewdest and most severe financial sensibilities), and b) The initial excitement of the many men who waited for hours in line, their ankles itching from the buckwheat, for the company of the girls, and the devastation these same men felt, after parting the curtains of a slapdash boudoir, after slipping into the willowy arms of a fertile young lassie, and upon finding through the fog of their inebriation that though they were willing, their parts were not and perhaps would never again be compliant and up to the task, was too much for most. The miners of San Amaro, shortly after the arrival of the Peahen Traveling Bawdy-House, dispersed, wandering, dazed and bare-lipped, into the outlying countryside to starve to death, or else threw themselves into their own frothing mine shafts, and there suffocated. The fate of Bill Amaro, San Amaro Hisself, is unknown.



Christopher Hellwig lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where in the winter he ended a year-long tenure as fiction editor of Black Warrior Review. His writing has appeared in Indiana Review and is forthcoming in the Red Issue of Fairy Tale Review.