Showdown City by Todd Berger is a fiercely inventive novel of suspense and satire (Available June 7, 2016).
A down-on-his-luck helicopter pilot named Huey Palmer finds himself hired by a small cadre of treasure hunters who set out into the Nevada desert to find a gun. It’s not just any gun that eccentric billionaire Ernie Swords wants, it’s a long-lost antique, one with a story worth a fortune, and Swords has the money and the means to get it.
Where Huey and his cohorts soon find themselves, however, is stranded far from civilization in a forgotten town dubbed Showdown City, where the infamous gun is one of hundreds readily available for the townsfolk to settle any and all disputes. After living in isolation for over a hundred years, the town has morphed into a warped, lawless community overseen by a delusional tyrant and his quick-draw henchman―and they do not take kindly to strangers.
Huey is the one who got them into this mess in Showdown City, and now, with the unlikeliest help, he has a plan to shoot their way out.
Dr.DouglasRainey was convinced that not a single one of the 235 students currently sitting in his lecture hall was paying attention to him. Sure some of them were literally looking at him, but paying attention? Doubtful. It didn’t used to be this way. When he was a student here at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1970s, people not only paid attention, they dressed up.
The men wore slacks and the women wore dresses, or slacks if they were progressive. Now, though? There was a girl in the front row literally wearing pajamas. Full pajamas. Flannel with little, pink cupcakes on them. She wore no makeup and looked like she just rolled out of bed. Dr. Rainey would love to complain about this to the dean of the History Department, but walking in and stating “I don’t think the girls dress classy enough” is something that gets academics brought before ethics committees.
Dr. Rainey knew that there were two main motivating factors for why everyone had stopped paying attention to not only him, but professors in general. The first was that six years ago, the university made it mandatory that all incoming freshman own a laptop computer, and even provided one for low-income students. This meant that all 50,000 students began bringing those laptops to class, and with the ability to hop on the campus’s free Wi-Fi this also meant that they had the entire internet and all the social networks therein to occupy their time. The second reason was the rise of note-taking services like Koofers.com, a website that offered, for a price, downloadable PDFs of that day’s lecture notes taken by a student in the class secretly under Koofer’s employ. This student would take diligent notes on the aforementioned laptop, fix up any spelling or grammatical errors, and upload it to the service for anyone else in the class to download within an hour of the class ending. In theory this would mean that there should be at least one student paying attention to Dr. Rainey at this moment, but he had been teaching the same exact syllabus of History 373: The American West for twelve years now, and Koofers.com figured out long ago there was no point in paying some secret student to diligently take the same exact notes the site already had on file. Of course, Dr. Rainey could challenge this if he wished and change the syllabus up, but he had come to terms years ago with the fact that this was a Sisyphean task. Whether they were paying attention or not, he would lecture today just like he did every day, because that’s what the university paid him to do.
He pressed a button on a projector and a moment later the image of a man atop a horse appeared on a large screen above him. The man donned a classic cowboy hat and brandished a steel revolver. “Does anyone know who this is?” He looked to the room, knocking some of the students out of whatever train of thought they were in. He knew he was going to have to ask the question again. “Does anyone know who this is?”
A young woman in the third row sat up in her chair, smiling. “It’s Yul Brynner,” she said with pride. “A production photo from the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven directed by John Sturges, which is a remake of the Akira Kurosawa film The Seven Samurai.” Dr. Rainey immediately knew that the young woman was a film student. She was probably taking this class to fulfill her history requirement and had watched The Magnificent Seven in her RTF 318: Intro to Film History class. He disliked most students because of their lack of information about history, but he disliked film students even more for their abundance of misinformation about it.
“That’s correct,” he said. “A film that some consider one of the greatest ‘Westerns’ of all time. Now can anyone tell me what’s wrong with the photo?” He pulled out a laser pointer and began to circle Yul Brynner’s body with a red dot. The students eyed the photo, confused. No one said a word. “I’ll give you a hint. There are two glaring historical inaccuracies.”
“The horse?” a student in the back said.
Dr. Rainey looked up to the horse, a brown mare. “The horse? How would the horse be historically inaccurate?”
“Maybe there, like, wasn’t that kind of horse in the Old West?”
Dr. Rainey wasn’t even sure what that meant. “It’s not the horse.”
The students continued to stare, clueless. Dr. Rainey knew he was going to have to help, so he pointed the laser at the cowboy hat atop Yul Brynner’s head.
“First up is the hat, the classic Stetson. When most people hear the word ‘cowboy,’ this hat is the first thing that pops into their heads. That’s why it’s usually just called a ‘cowboy hat.’ In actuality, though, rough riders in the old west were much more likely to wear this…”
He clicked a button and the image changed to an old black-and-white photograph of a man wearing a black bowler hat, the kind most would associate with Charlie Chaplin or a Magritte painting. “The average cowboy preferred the bowler hat because it didn’t blow off all the time.” One student laughed, and Dr. Rainey appreciated that. “This photo is of William Bonney, better known to most of you as ‘Billy the Kid.’ Bonney was photographed a handful of times in his life in a variety of different hats, and not one of them was a Stetson.” Dr. Rainey cycled through a series of photographs showing Billy the Kid wearing a center crease, a slouch hat, and a sombrero. “And as for law enforcement, the white ten-gallon ‘cowboy hat’ was of little use because it made one quite the easy target. Wild Bill Hicock, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson all predominately wore low-crowned black hats as not to be seen from literally a mile away.” Dr. Rainey thought some students might laugh at that one. They did not.
He pressed the button and the image returned to Yul Brynner. “So a veteran Cajun gunslinger living in Dodge City in the late 1800’s, which Yul Brynner was portraying in The Magnificent Seven, would have never worn a Stetson. What else wouldn’t he have done?” The class sat quiet again for what seemed like forever. Dr. Rainey was going to have to give them this one too.
“He would have never carried a revolver.” Dr. Rainey clicked the button again, and the image changed to show a classic Colt revolver. This actually seemed to perk the interest of a handful of students. The hat, not so much, but the gun? That gets them every time. “Despite the perception that Hollywood movies have given, gun control laws in the Old West were actually stricter in the 19th and 20th century than they are now, especially in the West. In fact, one of the first things that any new frontier town would do is outlaw guns altogether.”
Dr. Rainey pressed the button and the image changed to an old black-and-white photograph of a frontier town. He used the laser pointer to highlight a wooden kiosk near the entrance to Main Street. “This is a photograph of the actual Dodge City, Kansas circa 1878. Note the sign greeting any visitor to the town.” The students squinted and looked closer. The sign read THE CARRYING OF FIREARMS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
“It’s true that lawmen carried guns, much like they do today, but not every random citizen was packing heat.” Dr. Rainey was not sure if people still used that expression. “And the image of bandits constantly sticking up banks is also a major falsehood. In fact, before 1900 there wasn’t a single successful bank robbery reported in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, Kansas, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, or New Mexico. There are more bank robberies in a year in modern-day Detroit than there were in a century of the Old West. In addition…”
He pressed the button again. A still photo from the 1952 Gary Cooper film High Noon appeared on screen. It showed two men, one of them Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane, facing off in a duel on Main Street. “There is no evidence that anyone was ever killed in a quick draw showdown at high noon. We like to think that this is how all disputes were settled in the Old West, but it in fact has never been recorded as ever happening. Not once. Ever. But let’s get back to that revolver…”
He pressed the button and once again Yul Brynner returned. “If Yul Brynner’s character, Chris, was really a professional soldier of fortune looking to drive off aggressive bandits, and indeed was in possession of a firearm, then he most certainly would have preferred a shotgun or a rifle over a six-shooter. Six-shooters were just not very lethal. They didn’t use bullets as we think of them today, but employed a cap-and-ball system with an effective range of around 40 feet. Also, they burned the back of your hand.”
Dr. Rainey finally put down the projector controller and placed his hands on the podium, ready to give the same final statement that he had been giving to this lecture for twelve years. “So remember, kids, don’t believe everything you see in movies. That’s all for today.”
With those words, the students began to pack up their laptops and shuffle their slipper- wearing feet out of the lecture hall. Dr. Rainey flipped off the projector and started to pack up as well.
“I don’t care what history says,” an older man’s voice said in a thick Texas droll. “This cowboy prefers a Stetson.”
Dr. Rainey looked over to see that someone was still sitting in the back of the now-empty room. It was a man in his sixties wearing a nice suit, a bolo tie, and a crisp white Stetson upon his head. A thick gray mustache dominated much of the man’s face.
“Can I help you with something?” Dr. Rainey said.
“That was interesting, about Yul Brynner. People were right about you. You sure seem to know your stuff.”
“People? I’m sorry, what’s this about?”
“I read your book. Cover-to-cover. Was going to bring a copy for you to sign, but would you know I up and left it in the truck.”
Dr. Rainey assumed the man was referring to Untold Tales of the West, a 782-page tome that detailed lesser-known events of manifest destiny lost to history. The book was required reading for Dr. Rainey’s History 373 class.
“What say you and me go grab some grub at The Big Pig and have ourselves a chat?” the man said, referring to the hot new barbecue restaurant on the ground floor of a high-rise office building in downtown Austin. Some said it wasn’t as good as Rudy’s or Stubbs on Red River, but true Austinites like Dr. Rainey knew that The Big Pig was the real deal. It was always packed with college kids, tourists, and businessmen.
“First of all, I don’t know who you are, but more importantly The Big Pig would have a good hour wait at this time of day.”
“Oh, we won’t have to wait,” the Stetson-wearing stranger flashed a big smile. “My name’s Ernie Swords. I own the place.”
“You own The Big Pig?”
“Well, not really. I own the building it’s in. But that’s kind of better when you think about it.”
Copyright © 2016 Todd Berger.
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Todd Berger hails from New Orleans, Louisiana and currently works as a screenwriter, actor, and director in Los Angeles. He is the writer/director of the feature films The Scenesters and It’s a Disaster and currently has projects in development at The Jim Henson Company, MGM, and Millennium Films.