Trouble in Taos
The dreaded gunslinger, Billy Killer Vlodokost, gave Slimy Beach his first wound. The bloodthirsty Vlodokost came to Taos to shoot sheep farmers because he liked to watch them squirm. Heedless of danger to himself, Beach faced this trained assassin. Vlodokost shot first and hit Beach in the leg. The heroic Beach spun, fired, and ended the reign of terror of one of the West’s most evil men.
W. G. C. R. Colmes, Slimy Beach, the Tornado of Taos, p. 39
For a town just the other side of nowhere, Taos has had more than its share of Russians. Why does some feller sitting on the other side of the world take it into his head to go to a land where no one speaks his language and there isn’t a bottle of good vodka for a hundred miles?
We’ve got a Russian in Taos now by the name of Nicolai Fechin, and though I think of myself is a tolerant fella, this man particularly irks me.
He makes crooked stuff and gets a hundred times as much as I get for straight stuff. It’s the whole “art is what you think it is” business that lets him get away with it.
For seventy years I’ve been working in wood, sixty of them here in Taos. I’ve made caskets, doors, totem poles, and more than my share of out-houses, but recently the best money is in making picture frames. Taos is not an ideal place for a wood worker because most of the trees around here are spruce. Spruce has too much sap, more than its share of knots, and it twists as you’re working it. Some say that spruce wood is haunted. I know it bedevils whoever tries to work it. Even if you dry it properly, it will still twist and check on you. It’s been my own private purgatory working with spruce all these years.
Seven years ago this Russian shows up. He shows off his uneven handiwork and calls it art. “It’s asymmetrical,” he says. I call it “too lazy to get right.”
Though I have to admit Fechin has an incredible toilet in his house. It’s not big and brass like Norry Basset’s down at the mercantile; it’s small and white – made out of some kind of ceramic. You could sit on that seat from Christmas day to Easter and not get a single sliver. It’s so smooth you feel like you’re sitting on a cloud.
It’s got a great flusher too. That toilet will send anything down without a gurgle, and being not-too-fond of the Russian, I’ve tested that myself. I once sent forty pages of Sears and Roebuck – all the way from grain threshers to horse collars, down those pipes without a single complaint. I even tried sending it asymmetrically; didn’t make a difference.
From what I hear, Billy Vlodokost wasn’t much like Nicolai Fechin except that he was Russian. For one thing Billy wasn’t an artist, and for another his middle name was Killing.
Killing might sound to you like an unusual middle name. Well you’re right – it was an unusual middle name. Billy didn’t know much English, having come over from Russia just the year before. He couldn’t find work in New York, and someone convinced him that there was a living to be made as a hired gun if he moved west.
Taos had a few cattle ranchers, but mostly it was sheep country. I’ve always found that sheep farmers (though they don’t smell as good) are gentler and easier to get along with than cattlemen. The fact that the Taos area cattle ranchers were less pugnacious than some might have something to do with them being outnumbered a whole lot to one.
Then the Santa Fe Trail and railroad changed things. Suddenly people a county away or farther cared what happened around us. Cattlemen started shooting sheepmen, and Taos had sheepmen. That made us a town full of people that jumped at loud noises.
Slimy had three kills to his credit, including Mike Finn, Horace McKonacher, the banker who tried to tell Slimy that Confederate money was worthless, and Miguel Silva, who was unfortunate enough to be standing next to Horace McKonacher at the time.
McKonacher had been pressuring local ranchers on delinquent loans. I suppose a banker needs to do that sort of thing, but the feeling around town was that McKonacher was enjoying the duty far too much. No one much minded Slimy killing him, but there were some squeamish feelings about Silva until a close inspection of his flock discovered that it largely comprised of missing strays from neighboring flocks.
People around Taos were beginning to see Slimy as not only a man with a knack for good privy cleaning, but for human refuse disposal as well. Slimy’s reasons for killing didn’t matter. It was results that counted. You don’t ask the wind that blew the locusts off your corn if that’s what it meant to do; you’re just glad that it did.
It was a lucky thing for Slimy that New Mexico was so full of people who just needed killing.
Billy Killing Vlodokost showed up in Caswell County looking for work as a gunslinger. The cattlemen of Caswell told Billy that they just might be interested, providing that he proved himself first.
“How is the proving that I must do for you to be hiring me?”
“Easy enough Ruskie, just kill one of them sheep farmer’s gunslingers.”
The problem was the sheep farmers didn’t have many hired guns. Undeterred, Billy began his search.
“Your pardon begging. Direct me pleasing to sheep farming gunfighter for me to be killing?”
It wasn’t the kind of question that made Billy Killing Vlodokost popular in northern New Mexico, but it sure attracted a lot of attention.
A helpful banker in Clayton mentioned Slimy. Slimy wasn’t a hired killer, and to that point in his life he hadn’t even killed a cattleman. That didn’t matter. Slimy had killed a banker, and other bankers tended to look down on such things.
Now, I have heard people say over the years a phrase I never understood.
“That’s the kind of man that gives bankers a bad name.”
The folks that say it seem to understand what they’re talking about, so maybe it means something to you. If there’s a kind of man that gives bankers a bad name, does that mean that there is a banker or two that doesn’t? If there is, I never met one.
When you live in a place so wide open and free, a place where every kind of work is open to a fella – farming, smithing, carpentry, latrine digging – and you choose to be someone who does nothing but handle money and cheat people, what does that say about you? At least the card sharpie puts on a nice show while he cheats you. Bankers don’t have the personality for that. Most of the bankers I’ve met couldn’t even tell a joke if their mother’s life depended on it.
Yup, hemorrhoids, saddle sores, and bankers – I’ve yet to find a purpose for any of them, but I’ll put up with the hemorrhoids and saddle sores.
Now that Billy had a name, it didn’t take him too long to catch up to Slimy. Slimy was digging latrines behind the Montoya hacienda that afternoon. The Montoya family had more children than I ever bothered to count, and so they needed an extra deep latrine. Slimy, as you remember, didn’t have the height to stick out in a crowd nor the stretch to top the surface of the Montoya outhouse ditch.
Billy was pretty sure he was in the right place, but instead of following his nose (a reliable way to find Slimy even when he wasn’t digging a latrine), he started asking the twenty or so children playing Beat-Sam-Houston-with-a-Stick in the front yard.
“I am the one looking for Slimy ranch killer.”
“The fighting gun of sheeps is here?”
“¿Quieres a matar los ovejas?”
“I want cow man killer. I must putting bullet in his head.”
“¿Eres tu loco?”
Taos was a town of many languages, but unfortunately for Billy Killing Vlodokost, Russian wasn’t one of them, and the Montoya children liked to pretend they didn’t know English either.
“Seeing you the Beach of murdering?”
“The Slimy is the one for which I look.”
According to Diego Montoya, he and his unnumbered siblings knew who Billy was looking for all the time, but they weren’t through playing.
“Yes, Slimy. I am wanting Slimy.”
“Yes, Slimy. Where is Slimy?”
Now, Billy didn’t know the word bajo, but he could see that the children were pointing down.
“No muerto, bajo.”
“How am I finding baho?”
“Con tu nariz.”
The children made sniffing noises and gestured to encompass the entire downtown area, even though they knew that Slimy was no more than a few paces away.
“By the smelling, I am finding Slimy cow man killer?”
“Si,” and the children pushed Billy back towards town.
Billy spent the afternoon sniffing every man he saw in town and a few of the women as well. Slimy was far from the only foul-smelling person in Taos. Billy asked those he considered sufficiently foul, “Are you being Slimy?”
The question did not go over well, especially among the women.
Estevo served drinks out on the stoop that afternoon so his patrons could watch the sniffing Russian. Between gulps of mud the regulars of the Rosa Linda argued whether Billy was as entertaining as the wild bear that wandered into town around Christmas time and ate Dancing Feather’s three-legged dog.
“This feller really wants to find Slimy.”
“Maybe he’s got a turd hole that needs shoveling.”
“Or a banker that needs killin’.”
“You know a different kind of banker?”
There was nothing much to say after that question until Two-Bucket spit out a bite of enchilada.
“Estevo,” said Two-Bucket, “where you gettin’ your ingredients for your enchiladas, Slimy’s wheelbarrow?”
“It’s your own fault,” said Jacques de Tiwa. “You know better than to order Estevo’s food.”
Estevo just nodded. Maybe the priests at Saint Frank’s had more books than Estevo did on his shelf – maybe not. Anyway, there wasn’t a cookbook among them.
“Hold on, fellers,” said Cunning Hawk, who rarely spoke except to point out the obvious, “here he comes.”
Sure enough, Slimy was walking back into town with his wheelbarrow and his shovel. The watchers on Estevo’s stoop got real quiet as the Russian approached him. Instead of coming up close to Slimy, Billy stopped in his tracks ten paces away.
“You are being Slimy!” said Billy Killing Vlodokost. “You smelling of dung evil.”
The boys on the stoop started laughing themselves silly. That wasn’t an unusual thing for this crowd, but I figured you might want to know about it anyway.
Slimy was real tired from a hard days work, and that might be what saved his life that day, that and the heavy duster that he always wore. Ordinarily Slimy would take the occasion of any person talking to him to begin one of his endless stories about griddle cakes made out of crushed acorns or of the first bath he ever had when he tried to wade out to a barge on the Arkansas River.
“Yup, I guess so,” was all Slimy said, and he kept walking.
Billy Killing Vlodokost reached for his gun.
They don’t generally wear Colts in Russia, and except for the Tsar’s police and the military they don’t carry firearms at all. Killing started wearing a gun when he left New York, but he never got around to actually trying it out. Bullets cost money, and that was something Billy didn’t have in abundance.
He also didn’t have a holster. He kept his pistol in his pants under his belt. Anyone who’s ever kept a loaded pistol in their pants will tell you that Billy was a lucky man to still have all his parts. If you’re jiggling around, especially on a horse (luckily Billy couldn’t afford a horse), it’s pretty easy for the hammer to catch on your clothes and cock. Once the hammer is cocked, it doesn’t take all that much for the weapon to fire.
Yup, Billy Killing Vlodokost was a lucky man to come this far without hurting himself. Those on Estevo’s porch who watched the clumsy Russian thought he was exceptionally lucky Slimy didn’t see him jerking a revolver out of his pants. They meant to shout a warning to Slimy, but they couldn’t stop laughing.
Mud will do that to ya. It might be the turpentine.
I might have mentioned before that Slimy was a little guy. I think I also mentioned that he wore a duster. In addition to being about the filthiest piece of clothing I’ve ever seen, Slimy’s duster was far too big for him. On a normal-sized man the duster might have fallen to just above the knee, but on Slimy it fell so low that it performed its own civic service by raking the horse dung to the side of the road as Slimy walked.
If you were near-sighted and walking from a distance, you might mistake Slimy for a woman wearing a long, shapeless, unattractive dress. It was such a tent around Slimy that it was hard to be certain just where he was in there.
Hitting a target, even one as small as Slimy Beach, from less than thirty feet away isn’t a hard thing to do. Of course, Billy Killing Vlodokost was nervous. He’d never fired a gun before, and Slimy’s duster was confusing him. Maybe the biggest reason that Billy Killing Vlodokost hit Slimy in the leg instead of killing him is that at that moment in Taos New Mexico, with the smell of the Montoya privy filling his nostrils and the laughter of the Rosa Linda regulars in his ears, Billy Killing Vlodokost’s luck ran out.
Slimy spun around, not in order to face his attacker, but because the bullet made his leg jerk behind him. He also fell over as he spun and uttered a nonsense word of surprise. That word, according to Estevo, was boilyen, a word that sounded remarkably like the Russian word for good.
It was good, at least for Slimy, that he hit the ground, because the second and last bullet ever fired by the shaken and confused Billy Killing Vlodokost flew over Slimy’s head.
Slimy’s duster opened. The hand that wasn’t pinned from trying, unsuccessfully, to break his fall produced a cut-down shotgun that once lay on Estevo’s bar. Slimy braced his elbow in a rut, pointed in the general direction of Vacil and Anna Vlodokost’s baby boy, and fired.
Most of the pellets flew harmlessly over Killing’s right shoulder. Some reached the adobe front of Claybourne Petree’s Carpentry Shop and Mortuary, but thankfully missed the window displaying an oak washstand, a three-drawer chest, and the very casket that Billy would inhabit ’til kingdom come. A relative few – less than a quarter of the load – implanted themselves in Billy Killing Vlodokost’s right shoulder, neck, and face.
Though the pellets were few, they were more than enough to make one side of Billy’s face unrecognizable to anyone, including Vacil and Anna Vlodokost, who were still in Mother Russia dodging Cossacks and waiting for word of their son.
Flossy, Cunning Hawk, and Jacques stepped over to view the body. Two-Bucket Joe, having been at the battle of Shiloh, knew enough about dead bodies and kept his seat. Estevo was curious, but thought the stoop a safer place to be.
“Well, Slimy,” said Cunning Hawk, “I guess you killed him.”
“Yeah,” said Slimy as he rolled over on his good leg and reloaded his gun before slipping it back beneath his duster.
“I gotta say,” said Two-Bucket, “this here was the nicest fellow you’ve killed yet.”
“Yeah,” said Slimy, “I guess he was alright.”
“Not that we blame you,” said Flossy. “He shot you after all. You alright?”
“I guess so,” said Slimy. “I’ve got a bullet in my leg, I think. It hurts a bit.”
Claybourne Petree spent a few minutes trying to rearrange Billy’s face before he slipped him into a coffin. Billy had only four bits on him, but the gun was worth two dollars. It was less than Claybourne’s going rate, but he tried to make the Russian look good anyway. Claybourne was a real professional, and if his clients didn’t thank him for it, it made the living folks of Taos comfortable that someday they’d be going into the ground looking their best.
Fernando the barber tended to Slimy’s leg while Slimy told Flossy and Cunning Hawk the story of his watch. The story was just as boring as it always was, but Flossy said that it gave her comfort. If he was back to telling boring stories, she knew Slimy was going to be alright. Slimy fell asleep right there in Fernando’s chair, and as no one was keen on waking a man who was wearing two loaded sawed-off shotguns, they just left him there for the night. Fernando’s business suffered a bit until he got the place aired out, but Slimy paid him in sliver, not wanting to part with any of his Confederate money, so everything worked out for all concerned – except for Billy Killing Vlodokost, of course.
Back east they read these dime novels, like the one written by the lazy blowhard Colmes, and hear stories of people getting shot and returning to normal twenty minutes later. Everyone knows that being shot in the head, the heart, or the gut will kill you, but what city folk don’t know is that being shot in the leg is almost as likely to kill you, only it’ll take longer and hurt more.
Slimy recovered from the only successful bullet fired by Billy Killing Vlodokost. Fernando took credit for Slimy’s recovery, but he knew, as did everyone else, that it was more luck than anything else.
It took a while for Slimy to get back up on his feet, and a number of things changed in Taos over that time. First, Slimy ran out of silver and federal dollars and had to part with some of his precious Confederate money. The local storeowners weren’t pleased with giving full value for the worthless notes, but as they’d been making money on the exchange for years, there wasn’t much they could say about it.
Second, Taos started to stink.
It’s funny how people get used to almost anything. The people of Taos were used to a town where you could drink a beer or eat a lamb chop and enjoy the taste.
Nothing like an involuntary gag reflex to spoil your meal.
People were tolerant of Slimy and his boring, stinky, and murderous ways before. Now they recognized just how important he was to their quality of life, and the people of Taos determined that they would do what they needed to do to keep him.
Slimy was appreciated. He was also becoming a famous gunfighter. Back then, towns loved gunfighters. If nothing else, they kept the bankers away.