Western Short Story
Judge Herman Guest, holding court in The Alibi Saloon, said, “He was the wiriest, ridin’est, ropin’est, hallaluajin’est, shootin’est cowboy I ever did see, that cowboy I damned well saw more than a fair share in my time. I tell you he could shoot the top off’n a bottle at 50 feet hardly ever lookin’ like he was aimin’, and he never missed it. Not ever.”
“What was this critter’s name, Judge? You ain’t said so much as a nickname and no initials to set us knowin’, and that’s the truth.”
“Oh,” came back the judge, “It’s too dang early to be givin’ out names like it was Christmas time. This here is the story you wanted to hear, so I’ll tell it my way, right down to his name, this cowboy, when the times comes.” He licked his lips again and kissed the top rim of his glass.
This was a Saturday afternoon in the Alibi Saloon and Judge Guest was “jawin’ and chewin’ and talkin’” out of the side of his mouth, or the corner if you can picture it, and his face covered with hair white as the peak of Salicid Mountain across the river from the saloon and uphill a ways. He had a bold but kind of dumb stare in his eyes as he talked on and on about his favorite topic, the best cowboy, “and the terrorin’est” he ever knew. “The man is goin’ to make amends for all the dirt and dog stuff done him in this life afore he lets go of it all, and that’s a promise I make as the leadin’ lawfulest man in the territory.”
The judge, as just about everybody in the territory knew, would keep drinking all day as long as someone would arrange another drink to come to his hand as soon as the current one was licked off the top rim of his glass, for the judge had this strange habit, like I said, “of kissin’ every drink goodbye like it darn near might be my last one on this green earth,” as he was often heard to say.
“Where’d you first meet this stranger-than-hell cowboy, Judge? Was it in the territory or in some other world we ain’t rode to yet?”
All the retorts, as you might suppose, were ready at hand, and though they may not have been in the same exact order for each Saturday of the “high sittin’,” as the judge called it, they all came in their due time, which was anytime on a Saturday afternoon and into the deepest shadows of night until the judge might be carried off because he got caught nodding a time or two now and then.
“It was on the Brazos, I think, or The Snake as it run out of mountains and a small town had started breathin’ right there on the edge of the grass and the trail comin’ down along the river and outta the mountains up back of it all. He was just comin’ into town like it was a Satiday when three gents, whom I got to meet later in the day in a court hurry, tried to take everybody’s money outta the bank, and had done shot the teller and a young fella mindin’ his own business just outside the bank door, shot him right in his face and it was kinda a good thing he never got to look at hisself again ’cause he was a horror show from then on, which was only a few hours anyway afore he passed on.”
“What was that poor boy’s name, Judge?”
“Harland Baker, from what I recall,” offered the judge. Of course, everybody knew the boy’s name changed with every session, and they all wondered when one of them would find his own face described so horrible or a name was used for a second time, but none of that had popped up yet in the judge’s mind, even though he was tight to the glass and loose in the sheets of wind blowing on him.
“The boy was one nice kid and a hard worker for his poor mother who lived in a shack west of town and took in laundry to get food for her children, this now dead boy bein’ one a them.”
“What happened next, Judge? You remember any of that, it bein’ so long ago?”
“My terrorin’ cowboy, and the shootin’est as I said, drawed his guns and wailed the hell outta them robbers, but only in their legs so they couldn’t get to scurryin’ outta town and was all captured and brought to court asittin’ right in front of me. So I swore in the whole town as witnessin’ the whole robbery and when I asked for the stranger who shot them bad fellers to step up and say his piece, he waren’t nowhere to be seen.”
“Where’d he go so all fire quick, Judge?” The speaker, on cue like he had been sitting in the same seat waiting to say his lines, was as proud as all get out when he delivered his little bit, and sat back and wondered who was next in the litany of leading questions that would pass Saturday afternoon into Saturday evening in the Alibi Saloon.
“The word came to me almost as quick as it came to our hero cowboy that a bunch of outcasts and renegade whites and Indians were plannin’ a raid on a small settlement down the river, and he went ridin’ like a prairie fire loose in the wind to save those poor folk, which a course he handled in his way of shootin’ first and askin’ questions later like he was interested in any of it. That day he kilt more men on the run comin’ into town the likes of which no one had seen since Kit Carson and Mountain Jack and Big Mike Gulliver had taken on a regiment of French soljers who got lost in the canyons of the North Rockies and tried to take their supplies. All them folks got kilt, including Kit Carson and Mountain Jack and Big Mike later when the avalanche came down on them.”
“”Who told you about that fight, Judge, if all them folks was kilt like that?”
“Oh, it was an old injun sittin’ in his cave on the other side of the canyon who saw it all an’ told me one night when we was sharin’ a jug at a campfire in Brace Canyon.”
“What was that injun’s name, Judge?”
“As I remember it, his name was Straight Tongue Charlie Fox, a Kiowa or a Cheyenne in his warrior days but sent out to pass into dyin’ in the Brace Canyon Death Box, as what it was called by the Nations. They all knowed no old injun could get through the next winter once they was sent into the canyon that some called the Death Box or The Canyon of the Dead, or the Last Stop on the Rocky Mountain Line. But Straight Tongue Charlie Fox and me met up when he smelt my kill on the spit and he came in to sup with me and we spent a night like this one and he told me all about Carson and Mountain Jack and Big Mike. Said he prayed his injun way on the rocks that covered them all and knowed no animal was goin’ to feed on them, like he asked me if I ever found him dead to make sure I burnt him good enough to escape the vultures or the wolves or the coyotes or the worst of them all, the mad peccaries in a mob feed.”
“None a them ever lie to you, Judge?” The voice was in the comfort area at the back of the saloon, far enough away so as not to be marked if he missed his cue, for there were now and then a few newcomers who wanted to share in the festivities of a Saturday at the Alibi Saloon, and they’d have gladly stepped in as a substitute prompter.
“No sirree, son, or I’d a hung them like this,” and he grabbed his thin, black string tie and yanked up so hard that his eyes almost popped and his head swung to one side like he was on the end of a quick stiff rope and moving no more. He stayed that way until the next drink was placed right near his other hand, with an introductory cough by the barkeep, and he stopped hanging himself right on the spot.
“Hey, Judge,” said a strange voice at the end of the bar, which was immediately recognized as not part of the official day, a course voice filled with invective and a whole lot of disbelief, “were there any of the so-called real ladies of the town involved in this mix of things?” The speaker, a big buffoon-like character, carried a stupid and devilish look on his face as if he was out to spoil somebody’s fun, anybody’s fun.
He hadn’t bargained on Judge Herman Guest being at his best, which was his oldest trait, a brim-fire all-Hell approach to things in the line of justice and fair play for all folk in his presence and at the will of the court he presided over.
The judge jumped off his bar stool, unsteady as he was, and grabbed a rope the barkeep kept on the wall for neutralizing drunks of a night and rushed at the buffoon-like speaker, yelling to the group of four men at the end table, “String up any man who dares speak badly of our ladies, including those who live above us.” And he threw the rope at the table and the four men stood up in their excitement and the buffoon-like critter rushed out of the Alibi Saloon like he’d been condemned to hang after a fair trial.
The Alibi Saloon went into histrionics for a good 10 minutes, until all participants, including the judge himself, had drawn a comforting and settling breath, at which time the affair proceeded on its way.
The barkeep, to keep things going, inserted himself into the afternoon by asking a question, a repeat question from other Saturdays at The Alibi, to get things back on track. “Say, Judge, did this cowboy pard of yours ever live here in our town?”
Smiling, at rest again, back on his stool, his elbows on the bar, his belt released a notch for pure comfort, Judge Guest said, “Isn’t that the big question we’d all like to know but that sure would put a crimp into our afternoon, wouldn’t it, it being only three by the clock and hours left for us men who can still stand on our own two feet.”
“Oh, you’re plumb right on that account, Judge, as you are most times, I must say.”
“Tell me, sir,” replied the judge, “when ‘all times’ became ‘most times,’ and inform us when I made a mistake.” His lips passed over the rim of the glass, his eyes settled on the speaker, and the barkeep coughed appropriately, at which time the judge forgot his question.
The range of questions from the patrons continued, all as if a script had been written for the occasion, The Alibi being the stage and Judge Herman Guest being the one whose name ought to have been in lights over the swinging doors beckoning all riders and drovers and freight men and saddle tramps and returning posse members to come get rid of their dry throats and weary bones.
Shadows across the town and across the length of the valley from mountains on both sides right down to the river flowing past, came steadily, thickly, invisible in their visibility, finding pockets of darkness at first, and then filling in all the in-betweens until Judge Herman Guest felt a strange cessation coming over him.
Even the barkeep recognized it, as did just about every man in The Alibi Saloon, which all men knew had been christened with that name for the judge himself, who often said, “Life is an alibi we can’t always count on.”
But there was an edge to this day. The barkeep, on the job in this room for over a dozen years, knowing all the actors, all the stage hands, knowing best the main character himself, felt the cessation that the judge was knowing, had been alerted to.
An understanding filled the air.
“What’s that cowboy’s name, Judge, the one who’s going to make amends for all the dirt and dog stuff done him in this life afore he lets go of it all, and the promise you made as the leadin’ lawfulest man in the territory?”
Judge Herman Guest, now fully aware of things stopping en route, as he might have said, gathered himself for one last charge, looked into the dozens of eyes that had sat before him untold times, and said, “That cowboy, the wiriest, ridin’est’, ropin’est, hallaluahin’est, shootin’est cowboy I ever did see, has been outta the saddle for more than the 30 years and he’s been livin’ here among us, makin’ coffins, puttin’ us down, sayin’ the last word for all of us gone, Mickey Hardtack, arranger of all things done and final, the final touch bein’ his.”
Judge Herman Guest, falling from his stool, was dead before he hit the floor of The Alibi Saloon, and Saturday at The Alibi, as it was known, was gone forever.