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Please Do Not Shoot The Pianist

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From Salt Lake City one travels over the great plains of Colorado and up the Rocky Mountains, on the top of which is Leadville, the richest city in the world. It has also got the reputation of being the roughest, and every man carries a revolver. I was told that if I went there they would be sure to shoot me or my traveling manager. I wrote and told them that nothing that they could do to my traveling manager would intimidate me. They are miners—men working in metals, so I lectured to them on the Ethics of Art. I read them passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini and they seemed much delighted. I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me. I explained that he had been dead for some little time which elicited the enquiry “Who shot him”? They afterwards took me to a dancing saloon where I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was printed a notice:—

PLEASE DO NOT SHOOT THE PIANIST.
HE IS DOING HIS BEST.

-- Oscar Wilde, Impressions of America




Leadville, Colorado, April 1882

"Hey, Charlie, it's almost time. You coming or not?" The words were not spoken loudly, but they came from near enough to be easily heard over the boisterous noises of the saloon's other patrons.

Charlie looked up at the sound of his name coming from Ben Wade's mouth, but lost what little enthusiasm he possessed when he saw who was hanging on the Boss's arm like she never meant to let him go. Velvet. "I dunno, Boss," Charlie said. "What's this thing supposed to be again?" He drained the last of his most recent beer and glanced around, taking stock of his surroundings for the first time in a while. Aside from his now empty glass and the Boss, there wasn't much worth noticing. The saloon was starting to fill up now, mostly with men still filthy from the silver mines, and that stupid sign was still hanging by the piano.

'Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.'

Charlie had to wonder what the owners had been thinking when they put that up. Didn't they know a sign like that would just make people want to shoot the pianist that much more? Charlie knew it sure made his trigger fingers itchy. Charlie longed to shoot the pianist, dreamed of letting him have it with both barrels, not because he found anything wrong with the man's playing, but because right now escaping a murder charge would be the perfect excuse to get out of this damn town. Only the knowledge that if Charlie left right now, he would be leaving alone, kept him from going through with it.

Charlie Prince hated Leadville. He hated it, and that hatred was growing by the day. Had Ben Wade been aware of this fact, he probably would have chuckled, pointed out that Charlie hated a lot of things in this world, and then finished up by trotting out some ironically applicable Bible quote just to show that he could, because the Boss was the sort who took his amusement where he could find it. Unfortunately for Charlie, much of his problem stemmed from the Boss's lack of awareness of Charlie's dissatisfaction with their current location.

No, forget that. Of course the Boss knew Charlie hated the place. He had probably known even before Charlie realized it himself, because Ben Wade made a point of knowing everything. Maybe he had even known Charlie would hate the place long before they ever rolled into town for a supposedly quick bit of reconnaissance to evaluate the vulnerability of the local stage routes. (The Boss claimed to have some ideas in that regard, but day after day Charlie found himself having to wire Nez and the rest of the gang, telling them not to bother coming yet because there still was not any action planned.) Charlie's real problem was that the Boss didn't care right now, because he was having too much fun throwing money at a curvy saloon singer and, apparently, attending the occasional lecture by itinerant speakers.

"It is supposed to be educational." The smirk on the Boss's face when he made that pronouncement implied that, for him at least, the evening's entertainment had already begun in ways that had nothing to do with Velvet, though Charlie was willing to bet there had already been some of that too. Sooner or later everyone ended being subjected to that look, the one that said there was a joke that the Boss was in on but you weren't and even if he explained it to you, you probably wouldn't be smart enough to understand. The fact that Charlie usually managed to avoid that look while on the job only to find it directed at him here and now was just one more reason to hate the place.

"Yeah, I got that much," Charlie said. "What kind of educational?"

"Well, Charlie Prince, why don't you come along and find out?"

Charlie looked back and forth between the Boss and Velvet. The Boss looked like he could take or leave Charlie's company, like he was maybe only bothering to ask because asking was something to do to pass the time. Velvet, on the other hand, she looked like she was hoping Charlie would say, 'no,' so that she could have the Boss all to herself tonight. That was enough to make Charlie's decision for him.

"Sure," he said with a grin as he fished in his pocket and threw some coins on the bar, "I'll come along. Not like there's anything else to do in this town." He adjusted his hat, buttoned his coat, and followed the Boss and the singer out of the warmth of the saloon and into the slushy streets. Velvet looked less than pleased with this development, which only made Charlie grin wider. However, Charlie soon lost his smile again as he strode towards the Tabor Opera House. It was only a few blocks away, but even after having had weeks to acclimate to the altitude, walking such a short distance left him wanting to gasp for breath in the too thin mountain air. God, he hated this town so damn much.

Most items on the long list of things Charlie hated could be easily dealt with. All it took was the fraction of a second necessary to sweep a gun out of its holster, cock the hammer, squeeze the trigger, and he could have the satisfaction of putting a bullet in the guts of any sneering bastard who thought calling him 'Princess' was the height of originality, but he couldn't wipe Leadville off the map with a pair of Schofields. Fire would usually be a good way to kill a city, he supposed, but even that wasn’t really an option in this case, what with the way that the weather had been alternating between rain and snow for the whole time they had been there, soaking and freezing everything in turn, to the point that probably not even dousing it all in lamp oil beforehand would be enough to get the job done.

Ordinarily, Charlie didn't mind the cold and the wet. He could work in those conditions just fine. Give him a goal to fix his sights on, and he would barely notice what kind of weather he was riding through as long as his horse could still run and his guns could still fire. Sitting around and trying to pass the time in a town in the cold and the wet, though? That was another matter entirely, especially this time of year. It was the middle of April for god's sake. As far as Charlie, a good old southern boy through and through, was concerned, that meant that they should be well into spring by now, with plenty of hints that summer was just around the corner, not still mired in winter with no end in sight.

Charlie was briefly roused from his musings by their arrival at their destination. The Boss bought the tickets, and they found their seats. The speaker turned out to be some longhaired dandy of a Mick in satin knee breeches who said he was going to be discussing aestheticism and the ethics of art. Charlie bit back a curse, and he only even bothered with that bit of restraint because the Boss had elbowed him in the ribs as soon as he had opened his mouth and drawn breath to protest. This was what the Boss had wanted to see, had actually paid to attend? Seriously? God damn it! Charlie slouched lower in his chair and did his best to tune it all out. It was of little consolation to Charlie that Velvet looked just as indifferent to the topic as he was.

The laughter and jeers and shouted questions and comments from the audience made it difficult, but Charlie eventually managed to drift off to sleep. All the alcohol he had consumed beforehand probably helped in that regard. If he snored at all, it was not loud enough for the Boss to bother putting an elbow in his ribs again to shut him up. Charlie awoke whatever amount of time later, as the rest of the audience was pushing their way out of the theater. He thought he overheard multiple groups of people discussing the question of who shot Benvenuto Cellini, whoever that was. Charlie didn't know and didn't care. He yawned and scratched his jaw, then he looked over at the Boss.

One thing Charlie did know was that something had changed while he was asleep. The Boss looked angry, but it was the sort of anger that was already fading into something that looked suspiciously like that dead-eyed stare of his, the one that said life had lost its shine, the one he always got after jobs that were way too easy, the one that made Charlie certain that someday Ben Wade was going to leave him behind and find his thrills somewhere else. Charlie kept his mouth shut, because he wasn't sure what to say.

Once outside, they went their separate ways. Charlie returned to the saloon, while the Boss and Velvet went off somewhere together, maybe to get dinner, maybe to her private rooms to knock boots some more. Wherever it was that they went, Charlie did not expect to see either of them again until the next morning or later, so he was more than a little surprised when the Boss dropped down onto the barstool next to him not a half hour later, still looking sour as hell. The Boss gestured to the barkeep, and a shot of whiskey arrived for him in short order along with one for Charlie.

"What," Charlie finally ventured, "did the fancy Mick say to get you like that?"

"It wasn't what he said. It was the audience. This whole town is full of idiots."

"I could have told you that," Charlie said. "Every town is full of idiots."

"True, but tonight this one was dead set on rubbing my nose in its stupidity." The Boss tossed back his shot. "Let's get out of here," he said.

"And go where? This place has the least watered drinks in town and Velvet isn't singing tonight."

"Not just out of this establishment, but out of this town and off this mountain. I'm done here." Seeing that Charlie hadn't touched his whiskey yet, the Boss reached over and drained that one too. He turned the shot glass upside-down on the bar and left far too much money sitting next to it. Then he stood and headed for the door. "You coming or not?" he called over his shoulder, and only then did Charlie notice that the Boss was carrying both of their saddlebags, already packed and ready to go. More importantly, it looked like the proposed change in venue was enough to put some of the life back into the Boss's eyes, at least for now.

"Sure," Charlie said, "right behind you," and followed the Boss out into the night.

Had anyone on the cold stretch of street between the saloon and the livery been paying attention, they would have heard Ben Wade say, "We just need to make one little stop first."

The following morning, the first news to be brought into town was a report of a stagecoach robbery which had taken place in the predawn hours just a half mile outside of town, the thieves making off with the payroll shipment intended for the Matchless Mine. Later investigation of footprints at the scene concluded that the robbery was the work of two men. Some suggested that Ben Wade was the culprit, but the theft was never added to his list of crimes because there was no hard evidence of his involvement and it differed from his usual modus operandi of working with a gang of at least a half dozen. At best, the only universally agreed upon conclusion was that neither of the men involved in the robbery was likely to have been Black Bart.

And that was how Charlie Prince finally got out of Leadville without needing to shoot the pianist.

The End