Published on Friday, January 1, 2010
By Gary Addis
|After two weeks of backbreaking labor harvesting his cash crop followed by three days of roundtrips from farm to town, Walt Riley was tired, whiskered, coated with several pounds of prairie dust and thirsty for a cold, foamy beer. His yield per acre had been high for once, and the price had|
Jake greeted everyone who passed through the batwing doors of his saloon with a loud howdy and a big grin. The smile drooped into a scowl when he recognized Riley. Riley was a good enough friend, but Jake knew that, like most sodbusters, Riley seldom had the price of a drink.
Riley stepped up, grinning, and slapped a gold eagle onto the bartop.
Beer just wouldn't do, not for some serious celebrating. "Jake, I think I'll have me a whiskey."
The corners of Jake's thick lips instantly flipped upward into a smile.
"I see you're in the chips, Riley. Well, good for you."
Riley grinned and nodded, and drained his glass. "And good for you, too, I reckon, since I aim to spend ever' nickel of that eagle in this here saloon. Pour me another, and keep 'em coming till I pass out or tell you to stop, whichever comes first."
"A ten-dollar gold eagle? What'd you do, son, rob the bank?"
"Jake, I brung in thirty bushels to the acre, and I got top price, too! Not enough to make me rich like you, you understand. But..." He glanced around the saloon. Still daylight, the place was practically empty. "I reckon I can buy the house a round."
"Well, good for you," Jake said, and made the announcement to the room in his booming voice.
Two down on their luck drovers immediately rushed to the bar. They gulped down their drinks and gazed hopefully at Riley.
"Give 'em another, Jake--but that's all--I ain't made of money."
Nursing his third shot of whiskey, Riley turned his back to the bar and surveyed the room. One man sat alone at the rear of the saloon, his back to the wall.
"What's the matter with that fella?" Riley asked. "He ain't drinking. He got a broke leg or somethin'? Give me another, Jake, I'll give him table service."
"Unh uh," Jake said. "You know what's good for you, you'll leave that man alone."
"Don't be meddling in my affairs, Jake. Give me the whiskey."
Jake shrugged, and poured. "No skin off my ass."
Riley delivered the drink to the loner. Offering the glass, he said, "Friend, I got reason to celebrate today. I'd be pleased if you'd have a drink on me."
The stranger pushed his hat back from his eyes. He looked Riley up and down.
"Go away," the stranger said.
"What, you're too good to drink with me? Do I stink or somethin'?"
"That's right; I am too good to drink with the likes of you. And, yeah, you do stink like you took a bath in pigshit. Now, this is the second and last time I'm gonna warn you: get out of my face."
Riley had downed eight ounces of Jake's rotgut in ten minutes, six more ounces than he had imbibed in the last two years.
Riley was a big man, thick in the chest and arms. His sleeves were rolled up; the top two buttons of his shirt were undone. Last Fourth of July he had won the rassling match and with one punch in the boxing championship, had proven that he had a punch like the kick of a horse. He leaned over the table, supporting his weight with his big knuckles. He flexed, making his chest muscles dance.
To the stranger he said, "Friend, that sounded like a threat to me. I don't take kindly to threats."
The stranger leaned back in his chair and studied the big sodbuster. "Here," he said and sighed, "gimme the damned drink."
Riley passed it over, straightened up and nodded. "That's more like it. When you finish that one, I'll get you another."
The stranger pushed back his chair, and stood. He held the glass in his left hand. "Here's to you, friend," he said, extending his arm in a toast. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the whiskey into Riley's face.
Riley bellowed and reached for the stranger. With a smooth movement of the stranger's right hand, a pistol appeared, cocked as it cleared the holster.
"No!" Jake yelled, and jerked Riley back. "Mister Hardin, sir, Riley don't mean nothing. He ain't used to drinking, is all. He didn't mean no disrespect."
"To hell he didn't," Hardin said. "He thought he was going to bully me, sticking them big arms of his in my face."
"Riley!" Jake said. "You best apologize right quick, you hear?"
"Apolgize? Hell, I didn't do nothing! He's the one ought to apologize!"
In the face of the black muzzle of Hardin's cocked gun, Riley lunged again. Jake struck him across the back of the skull with the lead-filled sap he always carried. That blow would have felled a steer, but Riley kept his feet until Jake guided him into a chair.
"Now, Riley, you sit--don't move a muscle!"
Keeping a wary eye on Riley, Jake spoke over his shoulder to the gunfighter. "Mister Hardin, this big, dumb sodbuster is a friend of mine; I'd take it as a personal favor if you let this go."
Riley tried to rise, but could not; blood was streaming from his scalp.
Hardin holstered his gun. He leaned over the big farmer. "You're a big 'un, alright. But that don't give you no right to throw your weight around. Say you're sorry, sodbuster, and we'll forget all about this little set-to."
Riley worked his mouth, and spit a gob into the gunfighter's face. Before Hardin could react, Jake swung his sap again, knocking Riley unconscious.
Hardin straightened. Saliva ran in a thick stream down his nose and into his bushy black mustache. When it reached his mouth, Hardin pulled a silk handkerchief from the watch pocket of his vest, and cleaned himself. "Barkeep, you gonna put this farmer to bed? I mean, I'm not gonna have to worry about this jackleg breaking into my hotel room tonight, am I?"
Jake nodded briskly. "Oh, no, sir, no sir, he ain't going to give you any more trouble." Still breathing hard, Jake said, "I'll put him down till he sleeps it off if I have to hogtie him." As he spoke, he searched Riley's pockets. He found Riley's poke, and pocketed a twenty-dollar double eagle. "This ought to pay for my trouble."
Hardin grunted, said, "Make sure you leave enough to pay for his burying."
Jake's eyes widened. "But... Mister Hardin, there ain't no need for that...he's just drunk, is all. In a few hours he won't remember he ever met you."
"I will," Hardin said. "I'll remember. In the morning, give the sodbuster coffee, feed him a good breakfast. It'll be his last meal on this Earth."
Hardin smoothed his long coat, making certain that the gun on his right hip was unencumbered. Without another word, he swaggered out of the saloon and into the setting sun.
Jake was as good as his word. He tied Riley good and tight to the iron-framed cot in his storage room. He used several turns of rope. Not even a big ox like Riley would be able to break free. Jake wrapped himself in a blanket, and slept in his office chair.
The next morning, when Riley was informed that he had accosted the notorious John Wesley Hardin, that he had, in fact, spat in the gunman's face, Riley sank back on the cot. Had he really done something that stupid? He knew he should not have had the whiskeys, that he shoulda stuck to one beer--but no, he had to go and act the bigshot. Buying drinks for the house, guzzling rotgut like it was water from a mountain stream. Now he was gonna get killed. He shook the cobwebs from his mind. Served him right, it did.
"Was I you," Jake said, "I'd slide out the back and git on your mule and hightail it to home. And stay away from town at least a day or two, till Hardin moves on to greener pastures."
Riley rubbed his wrists, shrugged the kinks out of his neck and shoulders. "You want me to turn tail and run, that it?"
"Well, just what the hell else you gonna do? You can't go up against John Wesley Hardin with guns--they say that man has killed more'n forty men." Jake sighed. "Riley, he'll shoot you down before you can even blink. Armed or not, if you step out on the street this morning, that man will shoot you dead."
Riley shook his head back and forth, back and forth. "I tuck tail and run, I won't ever be able to hold up my head in this town again. I won't do it." He balled his massive fists. "I get my hands on him, he won't never pull another gun on anybody else."
The bartender growled in frustration, and grabbed Riley by the lapels of his soiled shirt, lifted the heavy man as far as he could, then pushed him back down on the cot. "Listen to me, Walter Riley. That there man is John Wesley Hardin, he wouldn't fight a circus midget with his fists.
Guns is what he knows, guns is what he does."
Riley dabbed at his scalp wounds with a filthy bar rag. "Then I reckon it'll be guns. A man's got to stand up when trouble comes his way."
Jake paced back and forth. "Shit, you don't even own a gun."
Riley looked up. "You keep one behind the bar...I seen it once."
"Hell, no," Jake said, "I ain't giving my best friend a gun so's he can get himself killed."
Riley moved quickly for a man his size. He grabbed Jake by the windpipe, and squeezed. "You always treated me fair, Jake...we been friends a long time. But if you don't give me the loan of that pistol, I'll break you in half."
Jake couldn't speak with his air cut off, but he could bob his head up and down.
Riley got the Colt. He sucked in a deep draught of cool morning air, and tucked the pistol into the waistband of his pants.
Jake sighed. "Well, if you're determined to get yourself shot full of holes, I can't stop you."
"No, you can't," Riley said. "A man's got to stand up when he's called out."
"One last thing, Riley. I seen Hardin shoot the eye out of the ace of spades once from thirty yards out, so he ain't likely to miss. I seen you shoot, too, and you can't hit the whole playing card from two inches...you're gonna have to get close, real close, if he'll let you. He's maybe the fastest gun who ever lived, but he's a tricky sumbitch, too. If he goes to smiling, and he starts to inch either hand up to his vest, get your gun out and empty your gun, because he's fixing to open up with one of his hideout guns."
Riiley stood in the doorway, gazing out over the tops of the batwing doors. "I ain't likely to survive the next few minutes, Jake. I'd be obliged if you sell my place for me, send the proceeds to my sister in Georgia--you can find her address on a letter I ain't got around to mailing yet."
"I'll do 'er, Riley," Jake said. "I'll take care of everything the same way you would for me, if our positions was reversed."
With a farewell wave to Jake, Riley pushed through the batwing doors.
Jake listened to the receding footsteps. For a moment, he considered loading his shotgun with buckshot. No, it wouldn't help his friend none if he got himself killed too--that Hardin was a ring-tailed coon. Jake braced himself for the sound of gunshots that did not come. The waiting quickly got to him.
He rolled and smoked down a cigarette down to his fingers, then left his saloon in the care of his Mexican swamper and walked down the boardwalk. Riley leaned against a hitching rail, talking to the two drovers who had enjoyed Riley's hospitality the day before.
Riley smiled sheepishly at Jake. "Here," he said, offering Jake the pistol, butt-first. "Guess I won't be needing this after all."
"These good ol' boys here rode into town with Hardin after they all three got run off from the trail drive they was taking to Abilene."
Riley grunted and shook his head, astonished that he was still breathing. He couldn't stop smiling; it felt great to be alive.
"John Wesley Hardin killed six Mexican drovers out on the trail in defense of these two fellers--one shot each--but there was a whole lot more of 'em out there. So, for their own protection, the trail boss run them all three off."
"But..." Jake said. "He swore he was gonna kill you this morning, Riley."
One of the drovers spat a thoroughly chewed straw from his mouth, and, with a nonchalant shrug said, "John Wesley, he's kinda notional." He pointed a finger at both men. "You're lucky that John Wesley didn't plug both of you yesterday--his temper's even quicker than his draw. But this morning, he saddled up and headed out of town... said he's gonna follow the herd to Abilene, spend some time with his old friend Wild Bill Hickok. Like I say, John Wesley is kinda notional."
The other drover tore a mouthful off his plug with big yellow molars, and offered the chaw around as he tucked the tobacco into his cheek with a grubby finger. Between chews, he said, "What my pard said, I think that's only half right. I 'spect Hardin left town so's he wouldn't have to gun you two boys down." The cowboy locked his eyes on Riley. "Sodbuster, he said you was a mighty brave man, standing up to him the way you did--and your bartender friend here stood up for you." He spat a stream of tobacco into the rutted street. Shaking his head, he said, "Like my buddy Tom done said, John Wesley is kinda notional."
A father at sixteen, a Vietnam vet at eighteen, a long-haired, war-protesting hippie at twenty, the proverbial ninety-pound weakling at thirty, and at forty a champion bodybuilder-- if you name it, at some point in his life Gary Addis has probably experienced it. He has been both laborer and manager; both successful entrepreneur and welfare recipient. He has tasted life in all its flavors. Having traveled so many highways himself, his writings provide glimpses into the disparate lives of people everywhere. His writings, both fiction and nonfiction, have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Esquire, Writer's Digest, Truckers News, Ironman, and Boys' Life. He currently resides in Mississippi's Katrina-country with his wife, two adult daughters and two dogs.