PROSPEROUS BILLY JOE POPE
(A Short Story by Lee Clinton )
Temple Creek, Arizona 1885
When Billy Joe Pope found out his wife had been messing around with one of the hands from the Pickford Ranch, he had a mind to kill them both. To build up the necessary courage to murder two people in cold blood, he turned to the bottle, which just brought on a bad case of melancholy. Billy wasn’t a gunman. Sure, he wore a gun, everybody did, but I doubt if it had left his holster in more than a year. He was a cowpoke without the need or the desire to learn the intricacies of gun play, and besides, he didn’t have the temperament for it. He was an ordinary man with ordinary needs and an ordinary face. Some said it was why Minnie, his wife, had strayed in the first place. She wanted more than ordinary.
Finding himself at the bottom of a deep dark well of despair and half-full of liquor, Billy Joe decided to end it there and then. Without further thought he pulled out his handgun, a ten-year-old Remington single action and put the muzzle of the barrel into his mouth. The cold metallic taste against the tongue did not deter him, he had made up his mind. He gripped and steadied the barrel with his left hand as his right thumb pulled back on the hammer, rotating the cylinder to a loaded chamber, while his index finger searched for the trigger. All was ready. He paused for a moment as if to farewell the world around him, which was little more than a bare upstairs room in a rundown boarding house behind the stockyards on Slaughter Street – and pulled the trigger.
The hammer with its fixed firing pin flicked forward to strike the percussion cap at the base of the .45 cartridge.
Billy’s eyes remained screwed tight and it took him a good ten seconds before he peeked out, wondering if what he was experiencing was actually the afterlife. It wasn’t and he’d peed his pants, not a lot, just enough to cause embarrassment.
Not dissuaded from this folly, Billy Joe started over again. Pulling back on the hammer a second time to rotate the cylinder to the next bullet, he screwed up his eyes and jerked on the trigger. Once again, the mechanics didn’t faulter, the hammer flicked forward just as it was meant to.
Still nothing happened.
Billy was perplexed. On two deliberate occasions he had executed the ritual of suicide and it had failed. He took the gun from his mouth, casually pointed the barrel in the air, drew back on the hamper and squeezed the trigger.
The sound from the shot, within the confines of that small room, was much like putting your head in a tin bucket and having it bashed with the back of an axe handle. Billy Joe’s ears rang, while the kick of the shot dislodged the pistol from his loose upright grip, to hit the floor with a heavy clunk. The bullet, now well on its journey towards the heavens had punched a neat hole in the pressed metal ceiling above his head and exited through the shingles on the roof.
The noise from the shot commenced a commotion with the boarding house occupants who ran to Billy’s room. The first to arrive was the owner, Mrs Rose Blenkhorn, a woman of little humour who was more concerned about her ceiling than the wellbeing of her boarder. It was Jimmy Tout from across the hall who twigged as to what might have happened, and enquired, ‘You OK Billy Joe?’
‘Yeah, I think so,’ came the reply in a kind of daze.
‘How so?’ asked Nathen Rowell, who was also a cowpoke like Billy and had been in the washroom looking at a deck of playing cards with risqué pictures of French gals taking their toilette.
‘I’ve been sent a sign,’ replied a stunned Billy Joe quietly. ‘No, two signs,’ he said a little louder. ‘I believe I have been saved by the Almighty Father himself.’
Mrs Blenkhorn would have none of it. ‘You’ve been drinking and fooling around with your gun and you’ve shot a hole in my ceiling. Who’s going to pay for that?’
The young cook, Elsie Happel, arrived last but in time to hear the name of the Almighty. Without thought, she said, ‘Praise be to God that Billy Joe has been saved. May he stay saved for all time.’
This acclaim connected with Billy who agreed by saying, ‘Sister Elsie you are right. I need to stay saved. I need to do the Almighty’s work in praise of my deliverance.’
I was called in a little later by Rose Blenkhorn to examine the hole in her ceiling. She was in a mood and out to extract the cost of repairs from Billy who didn’t have but two cents to rub together. I was more concerned with law and order and asked for his pistol, which he willingly surrendered, saying that he had no need for it anymore as the Good Lord himself was looking after him personally. I said I’d give it back later, once things had settled down, and provided he wasn’t going to shoot any more holes in Rose Blenkhorn’s ceiling.
I took the Remington back to the office and went to unload it, prior to securing the pistol in the gun cabinet. It turned out to be no easy job. Inspection of the chambers showed that one cylinder was empty, a common practice to allow the hammer to rest forward and prevent an accidental strike of the firing pin against a loaded cartridge. But boy, did I have a devil of a time in trying to extract the spent cartridge and those other four rounds of ammunition. It was as if they had been glued in place.
In seeking a solution, I asked Deputy Larry Wheeler if he had ever seen anything like it, and he said he had, from a revolver found on the body of a miner out near Miles Crossing. The weapon had laid untouched and exposed to the elements for the best part of three months over a wet winter, resulting in moisture and grit getting between the shell case and the cylinder, which wedged the rounds in place. In the end, brute force was required and on close examination under a magnifying glass it became apparent that Larry was right. The grit and moisture had scored and pitted each cartridge case and the bore of each cylinder. Two of the rounds had the solid imprint of the firing pin upon the cap, as did the spent cartridge. The percussion caps on the other two unfired rounds remained untouched.
Elsie invited Billy Joe to church that following Sunday, and with just a little prompting, she got him to tell how a dark shadow had fallen upon him, and how in desperation he had considered to end it all. The congregation with eyes wide, fell silent and lent forward to listen. Billy looked back and blinked, he never experienced such undivided attention before in his life, and it gave him a confidence that he had never previously possessed. In a strong voice, he said, ‘I chose the coward’s way. I chose to kill myself.’ The crowd gasped as one. ‘But on deliberately pulling the trigger, I was spared. The gun did not fire.’ More gasps. ‘Yet, in my sorry state I did it again, and still that gun did not fire.’ Women fanned themselves to retain a cool composure. ‘I had to ask myself why?’ continued Billy. ‘Was the Almighty playing with me? Was he toying like a cat toys with a mouse?’ The congregation was on the edge of their pews. ‘So, I tested the Good Lord. Yes, I did brothers and sisters, I raised that gun towards the heavens to seek a sign and squeeze that trigger and guess what, it fired as good as gold, and that was when I knew that I had been signified. I was not being taken because I had work to do here, right now, today and tomorrow, and that’s what I’m now doing. I’m here to tell you not to despair in your hour of need, because God Almighty is not ready for you yet.’
Every man, woman and child leapt to their feet as one to exclaim halleluiah and swarm forward to Billy Joe, pressing money into his palms while begging for his blessing. This he gave, but not knowing exactly what he should say, offered the words, ‘May you be blessed with prosperity in your life.’
That following season was one of the best on record for the district. The weather was mild, the rains good and the sun strong to grow the corn high. The grain yields were unsurpassed, while the pastures were lush across the surrounding plains. The quality of the produce was reflected in the prices, which saw all in the community flourish. The churches filled with thankful folk who wished to praise the Lord and listen to Billy Joe, who through his blessing of prosperity had somehow become known as Prosperous Billy Joe Pope.
Now, not everybody was convinced of Billy Joe’s ability to bestow blessed gifts from the Almighty, and as sheriff, I was paid to be sceptical about everything and anything. Doc Ferguson had a similar view and casually said to me, ‘Have you seen Billy Joe Pope lately?’
I replied, ‘No, why?’
‘He was down at the bank. Arrived in a smart buggy with Elsie Happel. Both all gussied up. She doesn’t cook at the Indiana anymore. Her time is spent in assisting Billy with his church meetings. They now have a travelling road show and use a tent. Big tent. Can hold over one hundred. They employ three boys to erect and pull it down for them.’
‘Good for Billy Joe,’ I said without showing too much interest.
‘It sure is good for Brother Billy and Sister Happel. They pass the plate at these meetings, and talk has it they are worth a small fortune from the takings.’
I didn’t believe it and said so.
‘Then you better ask Carl down at the bank when you next see him. He as good as confirmed that Billy is making the same profits out of his prayer meetings as Pickford’s is making from cattle sales.
‘Really?’ is all I could think to say.
A couple of days later, I casually asked Larry about Billy Joe and queried if he had attended one of his congregations. My deputy said he had. In fact, everyone he knew had, so he went along to see what all the fuss was about.
‘Impressed?’ I asked.
‘Well, it’s not the old Billy Joe you and I once knew. He sure knows how to spin a yarn.’
‘What type of yarn?’
‘The one about the two misfires. That’s the one that grabs the most attention and he keeps it for last, just before the plate is passed.’
I wanted to know more. ‘How does that one go, exactly?’
Larry was a little reluctant to say and went to the door of the office and closed it. ‘I’ve learnt to be careful of what I say, in case it is seen as disparaging. My own family pulled me up on my attitude when I alluded to the two misfires just being bad/good luck.’
‘What’s bad/good luck?’ I’d never heard the saying before.
Larry leant in close. ‘How many misfires have you had with ammunition over the past ten years?’
Honestly, I couldn’t recall one.
‘Me neither,’ said my deputy, ‘but we follow the rules and keep them clean and dry, and we shoot out ammunition within the year and buy new in sealed boxes. But if you treat them with neglect, year after year, they can and will fault.’
‘By not keeping them dry. Over time the powder becomes susceptible to failure if the cartridge is subject to sustained moisture. You remember that gun I told you about? The one belonging to the miner. When I was finally able to get the rounds out of each chamber, I tried firing them and they all failed.’
‘So?’ I said prompting Larry to tell me more.
‘So,’ I took each round apart and the caps had all fired correctly but failed to ignite the powder.’
‘Interesting,’ I said.
‘I tried to burn the powder with a match head and when I did get it to flare, it was sluggish at best.’
‘And the bad/good luck?’ I asked.
‘Bad luck for you and me if we have a misfire when upholding the law.’
‘And the good luck?’
‘Good luck if you are trying to blow your brains out with neglected ammunition while drunk as a skunk.’
I couldn’t help it, with tongue in cheek, I said, ‘Praise the Lord for that.’
‘I’m surprised that Billy actually got one round to fire,’ said Larry.
‘Are you saying that Billy’s two remaining rounds would have also misfired?’ I asked.
‘Would you put money on it?’ I said with a grin.
Larry thought for a moment. ‘Yes, I would.’
‘No need,’ I said. ‘But why not put it to the test. We can’t do it with Billy Joe’s pistol, I gave it back, but the empty case, the two misfires and the other two unfired rounds are right here in my desk drawer.’
‘It’s not the pistol,’ said Larry. ‘It’s the ammunition.’
We walked down back toward a makeshift range where we tested our weapons and Larry loaded his pistol with Billy Joe’s two unfired rounds, and without fanfare cocked and pulled the trigger twice. Nothing happened. He was right.
When strolling back to the office, I ventured to say, ‘So where does that leave Billy Joe?’
‘Apart from being alive?’ was Larry’s curt reply.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘apart from that.’
‘Just another fraud,’ said Larry, ‘only he doesn’t know it.’
‘A lucky fraud, if the rumours of his new wealth are correct.’
‘It won’t last,’ said Larry. ‘The only things that last, come from hard work.’
It was a perceptive comment, but then again, Deputy Sheriff Larry Wheeler was one of the most perceptive men that I would ever meet.
The next season was not so kind and the next after that was downright harsh. Those who had tucked away some of the bounty from that good season managed OK. However, many did not and that included Billy Joe and Elsie Happel. They had come into wealth unexpectedly from poorly ways, and somehow believed that it would last forever. This led them to be frivolous with their new fortune. They lived high and spent on a whim, trusting that the Almighty would not allow them to want again. The final straw came with a call from the Department of Internal Revenue as Billy Joe and Elsie had failed to declare their earnings and pay the proper tax. Now close to bankrupt and facing prosecution, Elsie came up with the idea that if Billy Joe repeated his deliverance by the Almighty in front of a paying audience, they would make more than enough to get themselves out of their financial predicament.
Billy Joe agreed.
The event attracted a giant open-air crowd, said to be five hundred strong. The papers reported that even Buffalo Bill Cody would have trouble drawing a bigger crowd.
Billy Joe proposed to use the same revolver in this public stunt, but this time Elsie provided the cartridges. Brand new ones from the general store that came in a sealed cardboard box, to emerge bright, shiny, clean and dry. She loaded the bullets into Billy’s gun for him.
The horror of that afternoon in April 1888 was to live in the memory of those who were there that day, especially the children, all dressed in best Baptist white and seated to the front. How could their little eyes and ears possibly forget, even if they lived to be one hundred and one? The day that Prosperous Billy Joe Pope met his maker.