Western Short Story
Amigo Juan's War
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

The argument didn't rage in the bunkhouse, but it seethed, a kettle on the hind end of a wood stove tossing off steam, the words now and then rising in like manner, slowly but surely and every once in a while the argument, or elements of it, came tinged with a taste of vindictiveness. Speedo Tamiroff thought it exposed a long-muted hate that right now might be gathering speed, heading somewhere, possibly into the middle of the crew. His gut was roiling but he had made his pitch to the seven other cowpokes.

"That's all damned wrong, my friend," Amigo Juan had said in reply to the disgruntled Tamiroff. "'You can't make a wrong all right all of a sudden,' my pa used to say. He also said, 'An inquisition becomes a revelation,' and when he was getting to the core of things he'd say, 'An I becomes an Us.' He believed it. Every word of it."

Through talking he might have been, but paused and went on with, "And reading was his great joy."

That pause was significant, as though measurement was necessary, part of the pitch he was about to make, his mind shaping the process. He'd be ready for them, one and all, and thought back over all he'd said, and simply added. "War is hell no matter what, no matter where you fight it, no matter against who, and the who, it sparks me to say, is somebody against our boss, against that old man up there in the main house."

He hoped he was not in the midst of indifference, realizing he'd always been different from the others ... trying so hard not to let go of the past and yet hold onto the present, the future. This country, this new world, was wide open, full of promise as far as a man could see, as far as a man could ride.

"If they're against the boss, if they're against this old man who treats us like sons, if they want his cattle, if they want this land of his that we're living on and working on, then they're against us. They want us out of here. And by God, they're not getting by me."

Amigo Juan shifted his weight, the way you've seen some boxers do, with a certain haughtiness caught in the spice of the movement, a derring-do carrying a voice of its own, like a look right in the eye coming on hard as a horseshoe kick. It was his natural way of bracing questions, making a statement a long step beyond the general talk of most bunk houses; rumors coming wide as the grass, gossip slippery as a hooked fish being banked, and rankling innuendos by the wagonload all over the town of Salvation Creek, the saloon, the barbershop, any place where all kinds of men gathered. They were seen by Amigo Juan as enemies, for they did not mumble what they meant. They were fully understood.

There was no two-way traffic about Juan Amigo. Recently he had begun settling matters in the bunkhouse where no one else spoke up against any bully with power in his back pocket. Some had said it was a tough enough task for anyone "but extra hard for a gaucho from the pampas, 'the gent with the funny clothes.'"

The fact is, Juan Amigo was the first gaucho ever to drive cattle for Hughes Anderson in Utah, and old and sickly Anderson seemed about to pass on his holdings, The Swedish Dream ranch spreading over 40,000 acres of foothill brush, Salvation Creek itself slipping out of the mountains in several points, merging for a flow alongside the luxurious grass he'd grazed his cattle on for more than 20 years.

To stir the pot, not a single member of his family was left from the early days. He was a kind, lonely old man who owned a grand piece of real estate. It salivated some very ordinary men, and also all who knew about it and were not ordinary men.

There were secret jostlings going on in the background that most people, including Anderson himself, were aware of because the secrecy was not of any importance to those taking aim at his property. Included in the opposition side were two extreme groups in their plans; one was willing to wait for Anderson to die, by accident or by natural cause, either apparently on the old man's horizon the way he went at life; and the other side of that stance was about to make a move to hasten his death and hurry the impending acquisition.

The one grace in this plight was the high admiration old Anderson felt toward the young man from South America, like a bright light on horseback every time he saw him working a herd, tending to his horse, minding his manners as though he had been educated in the finest schools. Yet the only schooling in his background was obviously that which he'd learned on the wide grass of the pampas and added to here in western America growing by leaps and bounds through exposure to people arriving from all over the world. Some of those places were farther away than his pampas.

Anderson once observed, "Amigo Juan learns more of the trades and less of the tricks of newcomers crossing the territories in wagon trains. He's got an eye for it. He's a student of people."

Special Amigo Juan was, and different from any man who had ever worked for him, bar none. Anderson had picked up a good deal of the Spanish from his wife as well as from a number of hands he had hired over the years. He found nothing strange at all in calling him by the name he had given in introducing himself, the tall, wide sombrero in place (often changing it for a small derby-like affair, also making a statement of origin), the large curved knife (faucon) stuck in the back of his belt, the belt also holding a lasso and three-balled bolas for near instant hobbling of a target or an enemy. His loose trousers were distinctive, along with a chirpo or wrap-around and its accompanying poncho worn for weather protection. An artist would certainly, and with relish, paint him different from other cowpokes ... the outcome also being a stick-out on a horse; he could ride like the devil himself.

On the prairie he was auspicious; in towns along the way he was looked at as invader, wet-back, odd-lot, stranger from far off, an awed oddity in the funny hat or funny pants or a scary knife near at hand saying hand fights were gambles against a stacked deck.

He was auspicious, too, in the bunkhouse, by his speech, his phrasing."A wrong becoming a right." "An inquisition becoming a revelation." "An I becoming an Us." Somewhat off-handedly, Amigo Juan had spoken words he'd carried for years, the very annunciation and subsequent echoes being part of his precious memory. Now they were getting up to speed, being used for the first time in a long span of driving cattle across dry grass, endless miles of it, eating grub he'd hardly favor come his choice, hearing the taunts from dozens of drovers. And the meanest and vilest from one drover in particular who bragged about killing unwanted men, useless people in his judgment.

Shove Dexter, talking about Juan Amigo's long haul up from the lower continent, said, "Hell, man, his back's wetter than that Injun we tossed over the falls at Break Bone Ridge one time, him too coming from another world of silly hats and silly tricks."

Amigo Juan knocked him totally hither with one punch, neither man carrying a weapon in the bunkhouse and Anderson gone to town in a buggy, unable to mount and comfortably ride a horse anymore. And he didn't bother to wear his gun belt or carry a rifle; an easy touch for any skunk met on a lonely stretch of the road or a bushwhacker.

The old man didn't last long on his own; in fact, he didn't get to town, a bushwhacker's slug catching him in the back as the buggy traveled over the rough stretch of road about two miles from that destination; the echo of the single shot fading in the grass.

A passerby heard the shot and investigated. He found the old man dead and raced to the ranch to tell the hands. Amigo Juan, already mounted, rushed not to the scene of the murder, but into town, getting a place at the end of the bar, out of sight on new entrants. He kept a steady eye on everybody who came in, where they went in the saloon, who they spoke to, who they huddled with if they huddled.

Of 7 more customers who entered the saloon after him, he made particular note of two of them; one was a cousin to Shove Dexter, a mealy-mouthed gabber and rough-house like his cousin, one side of his face ever-reddened by a pot of scalding water a woman had hurled into his leering face in self-defense. His name was Host Dexter and if a man was ever misnamed it was him, because the livid red scar traveled down beside his left ear and came to a knotted end where his jaw exhibited an uncomfortable lump. The travesty of the scar gave the cousin not a sympathetic and curious presentation, but a hideous look. Amigo Juan thought it would be difficult to sit with the scarred man at a table and enjoy an evening beer; tales often told but not spoken. For now, this Dexter sat alone, spared of company, a loner.

The second man made note of, and so marked, was a stranger, wearing the dingy remnants of a Stetson and worn drover clothes as if he'd just left the saddle after a drive of many months. Everything about him appeared to be on its last legs, worn to the nub, tattered or in ruins. The only saving element to his appearance was an apparent morning shave and his shiny gun belt, the belt carrying a pair of pistols with wear-clean, bone-white handle grips. Immediately on entrance he sat himself at a table with two other men as though he'd been expected to bring news of a late journey or escapade, the men waiting with impatience filling their inquisitive looks. The two men at the table were cowpokes who worked at a spread up the valley and Anderson's favored hand recognized them right away.

Amigo Juan had never seen this other man before, of that he was sure not only because of his state of dress, but the man's coal-black, deeply-set eyes looked back at him loaded with danger and all kinds of Hell waiting for ignition, the man obviously recognizing Amigo Juan from some quick description uttered at the table. This, Amigo Juan concluded, was an enemy, not only for him but for Mr. Anderson in a very recent past ... only proof at the moment lacking for the hangman's knot, or a quick, clean shot face to face or a bolo wrap about his thick neck.

Amigo Juan wished for dialogue to accompany his thoughts, set the scene as it was developing in his mind. And it was often that he was able to fill in gaps of knowledge with an intuition that grasped him with suddenness, and unwitting accuracy. He could smell danger, secrecy, murder, back-shooting, as if each insidious deployment had just been skinned of its outer covering, like a pungent lime that he had not smelled in years, an acidic taste sitting in his throat.

The silence in the saloon bothered him. Then he wondered what last word or words Mr. Anderson had muttered, something besides "Oh" or "What's that?" or "Amigo Juan, where are you?" Maybe he said, "I recognize the man standing over me, making sure I'm dead. I must keep my eyes still and open, stare at the sky, crook my finger under my leg like it's on the trigger. Maybe write a word in road dust that describes this bushwhacker, pin on him to a characteristic mark, one that Amigo Juan will recognize, for nobody else but him will pursue this death of mine. Perhaps, perhaps, I have already passed here."

The sensations of sound, imaginative and created sound, came upon Amigo Juan with considerable force. Once, a long time in the past, he had heard the wind sitting in the bottled end of a canyon catching the wind and tossing words at him that had no recall once they faded away. Warnings, he realized, were like that, minute alerts that heeded observation, understanding, reaction.

In a boisterous blast from youthful days, came the yells and howls of his friends as they raced on the pampas; "Así se hace, Victor." "Gran tiro, Juan." "Carmín, el gran vaquero." ("Way to go, Victor." "Great shot, Juan." "Carmine, the great vaquero."), the boladeros whistling in the wind, the hoof beats like drums from a near jungle of trees and the mysteries, the elusive joys that he knew would never come again in the same sounds, would never bring the same feeling. But he knew he'd have gone back if it hadn't been for the friendship and love for the old man shot dead in the road dust, but surely by now brought home by some of the hired hands. There'd be hell to pay if he hadn't been taken care of; and now it was his turn, his piece of the war someone had started from the depth of Hell and one old man the lone target.

This other yell coming at him was different ... no joy in it ... coming across the otherwise sudden silence in the saloon, gravelly, guttural, full of vitriol and hate and bigotry: "Hey, you, you sod Americano from Sod America. How come you keep starin' at me? What's this new crap of yours have to do with me? I just came into the saloon for a drink and you keep starin' at me. What you got goin' on me, huh?"

"I heard this minute the echo of a single bullet. One shot from a coward's place of hiding. One single echo of an old man dying at the single shot of a coward shooting from the darkness of trailside trees or a big boulder, or from behind a log big as a dead mule. One echo that traveled all the way from the west road to town and ending up right here in this room."

'Well, well, well, the Sod Americano's got something to say about someone dying. Is that it, Amigo? Is that it, Sod Americano? You sayin' I killed some old man who couldn't even take care of himself?"

Amigo Juan stepped away from the bar. "I didn't say anything about an old man. How did you know an old man died, if you weren't out there?"

"Oh," came the reply. "My friends here told me."

"You're a liar, señor. They were here when I got here and I came right from the dead man, the old man with the bullet in his back, and then you came in, and those two pals of yours better get away from the table because I'm coming over there to smell both of your pistols to see if either one has been fired in the last hour, or aproximadamente. And before you die you're going to tell all of us who hired you to bushwhack an old man who sold his ranch to me a month ago."

The two men at the table, suddenly aware their plan had caused a useless death, started to slide their chairs away from the table. One said, "We got nothin' to do with you, Grayson. Nothin' at all."

Grayson's fist slammed down on the table. "You two sit still and don't move. I'll talk to you after I finish all my business. I think your war has started already, just the way you wanted it, by Jingo. You think you're gonna own half the world out here before you die, huh? Better think again, the pair of you eggheads. If I go down, you go down with me." His face was drained of color, as if his blood had run away from him, filling his boots.

As cool as any vaquero ever spoke, Amigo Juan said, "None of you have it that cut and dry, Grayson," defiance exhibited in spades once more.

"It's my war now." Again he amplified his voice, the softness departed from it, a new hardness in its tone, "and you are going to have a piece of it. You'll be the second victim in this war, if the other two there at the table will kindly step aside."

His hand waved its warning.

It was an opening not to be ignored. He motioned to the two men who'd cooked up the murder scheme, flipping one hand against the boladeros swinging at his belt, the sound a threatening hollow issue, promising personal danger. There came announcements with that move, stories, pampas tales, vaquero mysteries afoot.

From half a world away, in an otherwise silent room, new circumstances had arrived at Salvation Creek.

"Believe this one thing before you die, Grayson," Amigo Juan said, letting the words slide through his lips with little moisture and just above a whisper, like Hell itself had stepped out on a sly move.

But the whisper penetrated all ears.

"Death is not easy by any means," he continued. "Often it is not quick like a bullet slamming its way through the chambers of your heart, or it is not explosive inside the head like cannon-ware or a foul grenade. It can be as ugly as venom, and as slow ... as slow as clotted blood in the last vein available. It can curse its half-way grasp on the breath like the hangman's noose without your feet taking a single step in death's final dance."

His body shook in a rhythmic and related gesture. At his side, in another move to instill fright and the full awareness of danger, he maneuvered the rawhide-wrapped boladeros with slick finesse; he'd brought that weapon from Argentina as though it was part of his person. It looked nothing more than a simple trio of leather balls attached to a braided set of leather cords. But most of the cowpunchers in the saloon had seen this weapon in action, taking down a horse, or a wild bull or a runaway target, or, without harmful intent, taking down squaw pine limbs off a dead tree for a campsite fire, the soft whir and whistle as they cut the air, and old Anderson once saying, "It was sure like blowin' on the embers of a fire before the flames came to light."

It was easy to see that Amigo Juan was transparent in all his motions, all his threats. As messages they could be seen, felt, almost tossing into the room the real smell of slow death. Here he was once more the true gaucho wrapped in honest conviction, in loyalty, with speedy and accurate use of pistol and boladeros and an imagination borne from the fields of home ringed by dark jungles. Those jungles, word had spread, were peopled by native tribes specializing in the darkest tortures. The stories he'd told around dozens of campfires raised the hair on the necks of many tough cowpokes, and even chilled a few of them with exaggerated fear. In truth, he was an odd danger to behold, on the wide prairie, in the confines of a saloon, and especially in the eyes of lesser men. Reputation as well as concord moved about with the man.

One of those lesser men was Grayson, for a moment frozen in place, his heart holding back on him, his breath too. This other man, the foreigner, was in command of the saloon, not himself as he had envisioned so many times. His eyes searching the room for support found nothing; not a raised eyebrow, not a wink of a sly eye, not the beginning sneer at the corners of a pair of lips, not a slow hand settling down on a side arm ready for wild commotion. The saloon stood as still as windless grass out on the vast prairie, hushed, not a single flicker of a blade.

He was alone ... at the end of the trail, against the stone wall of a last stand, catching what breath wavered in the room. His heart pumped too loudly, he thought, and the Stetson fell backwards from its perch on his head, the drawstring holding against a taught throat, a breath suspended at that juncture. His hand, too shaky to dare a quick draw, to ask for death at the hands of a damned foreigner, remained in place; judgment trying to exert itself, good sense.

It didn't help him, that unstable feeling. He struggled to compete, to stand up to the cowboy from another country, another world. And in that split second of judgment, of disbelief and wonder at the same time, his boots immovable, he knew he was servile in front of this man. He was beaten at his own game, his fingertips telling him so, the nervy lengths of his arms, his boots floating like loose stirrups, signals moving up and down his back as swiftly as clarions or the blast of a bugle.

None of it in his favor.

Slowly, still shaking, Grayson moved his hands, one at a time, to the buckle on his gun belt. His head was down, as though all the years told him he was going to end up this way ... like his mother had told him a hundred times or more, "Perhaps you'll be as dead as a log at the hand of a faster gun ... there's always a faster gun in the crowd, Sonny."

That wisdom was attendant again around Amigo Juan, new land owner in the new world.