The Shootist is as much a story of the end of the Old West as it is the story of John Bernard Books, the last famous living gunman, whose passing will mark the end of an era. On January 22, 1901, the day of the English queen Victoria’s death, Books rides into El Paso, Texas, to consult a doctor he trusts, only to discover that he is dying of cancer of the prostate—inoperable, incurable, and unimaginably painful. Books cannot move on; he has come to the end of the road in El Paso, but clearly he is an unwanted anachronism. The town, represented by Marshal Thibido, would be more comfortable if Books had picked another place to die. Like the marshal, the citizens are both fearful and fascinated by Books, royalty in his own right, a living legend of a bygone era.
Books has rented a room from Mrs. Bond Rogers, a widowed woman who is struggling to make ends meet by taking in boarders. She is unaware of the reputation of her houseguest, who in self-parody tells her he is William Hickok, United States marshal of Abilene, Kansas; however, her son knows that Hickok has been dead for more than two decades, and he recognizes the famous custom-made .44 Remingtons carried by the legendary shootist J. B. Books. The interplay between these characters as Books moves toward death gives the narrative depth and dimension.
Bond Rogers finds herself both attracted to and repelled by Books—repelled by the violence he brings to her home and attracted by his courage in the face of an adversary against whom he cannot prevail. As the word spreads that Books is in El Paso and that he is a dying man, he is plagued by parasites and reputation hunters. When a couple of would-be assassins try to ambush Books in bed, there is a shootout that results in the bloody death of Books’s assailants and the flight of the widow Rogers’s remaining tenants. She upbraids Books for being a vicious killer, but Books points out, quite reasonably, that his victims were in the process of trying to kill him. She struggles with the ambivalence of her feelings and with her fear that Books will become a terrible model for her son Gillom, who already is showing signs of becoming one of the local toughs.
Books becomes remorseful for the trouble that he has brought to the Rogers’s home. In an effort to make up for the lost revenue, he cleverly takes advantage of those who would seek to profit from his death. The undertaker who offers Books a free funeral in the hope of making money...
(The entire section is 1014 words.)