Western Short Story
The Barkeep and the Kid
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

He had been there, under the bar in the Dead Horse Saloon, in Fairly, Nevada, for 6 days on his hands and knees, resting occasionally on his butt. Sleep came to him fitfully at times, hunger soon assuaged, thirst tended, while anger and revenge sat on his plate like a sirloin steak. He would not leave, and Max Turcotte, the bartender, for the kid’s revenge, had run an auger through the bar front so he could see through to the front door when anybody entered. The boy could remain hidden while he watched for the man who had killed his parents.

Turcotte, at odd turns and idle times at the spigot, slipped food to Alfie Briscomb, just turned 8 years old, a drink of water once an hour as soon as the evening came on. And once, on a dare from under the bar and thinking he might put the kid to sleep, slyly offered him a half glass of beer. The boy sipped on it for half the night.

At the finish of the third day, when the door was closed and all the cowpokes had disappeared and the card shark had no players at his table, Turcotte again lifted the boy in his arms and carried him, sound asleep, to Turcotte’s room in the back of the saloon. Something down in Turcotte’s gut rooted for the kid, saw him victorious in some rare occurrence, like a duel out front and the whole town looking on as the murderer of the kid’s parents went down from the cleanest shot the town had ever seen. Turcotte wasn’t a praying man, as he would allow, but the High Name started to cross his lips late at night.

Alfred Briscomb and his wife Nonnie had purchased a small spread from the local hustler of all opportunities, Drew Bantry, and immediately felt the threats to safekeeping coming from many directions; cattle were rustled or plain shot dead in the far end of the ranch, old fences broken down, a small garden of vegetables trampled in darkness, and Alfred Briscomb, late at night on guard, shot one of three men from his saddle as they came too close for comfort with flaming torches.

All might appear as unwritten parts of the sale agreement.

The death of the man, commonly thought to be one of Bantry’s hired guns, did not slow things down, but brought a gang of riders back on another night in which Briscomb and his wife were killed, both of them from gunfire as they fought back from the front of their small ranch house. Young Alfie, safe underground in a place where his father had made the boy hide, saw through a slim opening in his hiding place the man who shot his father and then his mother, the man yelling at the other riders, “Bantry says there’s a kid around here some’eres. Find him. Tear the place apart and find him.” Riding wildly about the ranch house, he kicked over garden partitions and other obstacles in his way. Some of the riders had gone into the house and said nobody else was in inside.

The obvious boss of the blackguards was an angry looking man, with a mustache as black as crow feathers on his mouth, a hat that was neither Stetson nor derby on his head but looking like a box, and a wide gun belt across his middle with a pair of white-handled pistols sitting prominent in their holsters. The man’s gray shirt and black vest stretched across his chest, swelled by muscle and a large physique, and his horse was a large gray, a grand looking stallion, the boy thought, but carrying an ugly beast of a man.

Alfie, in one horrible breath, swore he’d recognize him the next time he saw him no matter where it was. He’d run for the sheriff or a deputy, get the man arrested, get him what was coming to him … capping it all off by saying, in a determined tone, “Or I’ll shoot that barn rat down like a crazy dog or a horse with all his legs broke.”

The promise burned in him strong as an ache, the kind of ache he had when his arm was broken by the mule with a vicious kick. “That, too, I’ll remember forever.” Both images stayed alive in the back of his head, “in my heart of memories,” he’d said, and him knowing the improbable comparison.

This morning, when he woke up in Turcotte’s room in a cot he had graduated to from a corner of the floor on the first night, the friendly bartender out and about business, he spotted the breakfast that had been left for him. Alfie ate it ravenously after the long night before under the bar, wondering if he would be here for a year or more waiting for the man with the funny hat, the mustache, and the white-handled pistols. How long would the bartender put up with him? Would both of them age here and the killer never show up? He shut his mind to such thoughts as quickly as he could, washed up in the bowl on the chest of drawers, and left on his morning ritual; the continual, day-long walk about the town, his eyes searching for the known and hated face under the funny hat.

Those were his days, like all his days.

But his nights belonged under the bar, peeking through the hole that Turcotte with the auger had drilled, every time a customer came into the saloon, every time new boots sounded out arrival, each new demand for whiskey waking him if he had dozed off.

Some men he knew by heart, the ones that came every night after work at some hard job to wet their throats. They had the same sound to their boots, now and then a click of expectancy as they might have pre-celebrated the first drink of the day, or a familiar yell, in the same tone, to Turcotte behind the bar, his smile a welcome for all thirsty men.

Now and then there’d be a strange face that he would ignore as soon as he identified it as uninteresting; unknown strangers had no place in his life, not from where he sat under the bar, not from what seized his mind every time the door opened.

So he was 8 days there, in that secret lookout spot, his routine the same with each day and each night, with his continued dependence on Turcotte for unflinching support, when he stiffened under the bar just as Turcotte was about to hand him a drink of water. The bartender, alert every moment, saw the reaction and looked up to see the man that Alfie had described several times, though the description might fit many men that Turcotte had seen while behind the bar.

Alfie started to scramble out from under the bar and Turcotte thrust his open hand down and pushed him back under the bar. “Stay there, Alfie, lest he shoots me, then run like hell.”

The boy froze in his place, and Turcotte said in his usual voice, “What’ll it be, stranger? “

The stranger dropped his hands on the bar, thrust his chest as if making a statement of stature, and said, “Top shelf for a thirsty dog. It’s been hell out there.”

“Comin’ right up,” Turcotte said as he swung his hand under the bar and selected a special bottle of his best stuff, hardly cut at all. “Drivin’ cows makes any man dry in the throat.”

He poured the drink and was about to put the bottle back when the stranger said, “Best leave it there. I got a good thirst from the road. No cows for me. All road stuff.” He winked at the bartender.

“I figure you never been here before ‘cause I remember my customers and ‘specially what they like to drink.” He tapped the bottle. “That’s good stuff for a dry man. Where you been? New here, I’d guess. Seen any of the country hereabouts?”

Alfie understood what Turcotte was up to, and still wanted to get up and run for the sheriff. But Turcotte’s hand was still splayed wide against his face, urging him to stay in place. Then Turcotte said, “You got interest in property hereabouts?”

“I sure do,” the stranger said, “’n’ more than you can guess.”

Somehow Alfie knew what the stranger really was saying, and really wanted to get the sheriff in a hurry. But Turcotte still had his hand on him, holding him back.

The door swung open and another man entered and walked directly to the bar and said to the stranger, “I walked around like you said I should and ain’t seen no kid yet. You sure you heard right about him, Edger?” To Turcotte he said, “Give me a glass of that stuff.”

The stranger, now known as Edger, issued a hard order to the newcomer. “You finish that drink and get lookin’ again. He’s abouts, that I was told straight out by Bantry. Don’t want them other fellas gettin’ us into somethin’ we don’t need. We get done what we come to do, then we’ll get outta here.”

The door opened and a gang of men entered and Turcotte said, “C’mon and belly up, Sheriff, you gents must be plumb dried out after your posse run. You catch them critters yet?”

He pushed the bottle toward the sheriff as the members of the posse lined up at the bar. “I’ll get glasses for the lot of you.”

The sheriff replied to Turcotte’s query in a tired voice. “We ain’t caught sight of ‘em yet, Max. Like they disappeared right in front of us and left a trail that’s still goin’ a hundred ways.”

Turcotte, in his years behind the bar, had seen arrests made in front of him on many occasions, but usually from a bandit too drunk to know that he was giving himself away to the law. This was different, and he was standing right behind the lone witness to a double murder. He recalled old Dutch Haggar standing directly in front of him, saying in a loud whisper, “That damned bank man was makin’ too much noise for me, so I just whacked him on the head with my gun and he went crashin’ over like he was a tree axed down. Poor fella hit his head on the way down and that was all we needed to get away, but hardly worth it, all that trouble.” And Turcotte saw him hung the next day after the trial.

But this Edger fellow in front of him, standing almost in the sheriff’s lap, wasn’t about to say what he had done to the Briscombs, man and wife and Alfie’s folks. Turcotte had to arrange what he could to keep Alfie, the only witness, off the front end of a gun.

He poured drinks for the posse and replied to the sheriff in an off-handed manner, as though he was really telling a lie to liven up the party, like it was Tell-a-Lie night at the Dead Horse Saloon. “Sheriff, I ever tell you about the last posse I was on, chasin’ down Lucas Smacker and his boys who had killed them folks at the Hart Ranch down old Tuscalla way, shot them plain an’ dirty and them just asettin’ on their porch? Why, we chased them fellas like they was on a damned merry-go-whirly contraption and they crossed their trails so many times we got dizzier than ‘em and lost ‘em and found ‘em so many times we couldn’t say if they was them or us.”

The sheriff laughed and the posse laughed and Edger and his pard laughed and Turcotte laughed loudest at his own story and made sly eyes at the sheriff and looked at Edger as he did so, and said, “Yes, sir, we didn’t know who we was and who they was and for all we couldn’t know we might have been havin’ a damned drink with ‘em and not even knowin’ it at the end of our ride. Course, we came in not catchin’ the damned outlaws we was lookin’ for all the time, bein’ so dumb as we was.”

The sheriff, at some moment in his tired wisdom, the whiskey making him suddenly alive, feeling a thought being born where it had not been, figured he was being told some fact he ought to give heed to. He slid a solitary, careless, quick-glancing look at the two other men at the bar, looked back at Turcotte who winked the slyest wink he had ever let go.

The sheriff said, partly in his own gaiety of the story, “Well, for all of that, Mr. Turcotte, we’d still need the witness or witnesses to the affair to finish off the work in a most proper manner. Did you folks have that kind of luck in your story?” And he emitted a loud and uproarious laugh that collected all the others into it; Tell-a-Lie-Night at The Dead Horse Saloon in full gallop.

And when the laughter quieted down, and drinking began again in its way, Turcotte said, “Why, of course we did, Sheriff. We had that witness right at my feet and we ran the trial and the jury and the judge right into proper speed and them two killers was hung the next day.”

The sheriff, now aware of what Turcotte was saying, and seeing the wave of a single small hand from down under the bar, as if some young one was saying, “I’m right down here and I swear to tell the truth,” drew his revolver, stuck it in the face of the stranger called Edger, and said, “Don’t move, Mister, or you’re dead.”

Alfie Briscomb leaped up from under the bar and said, in his loudest voice, “That’s the man what killed my Ma and Pa, Sheriff, and I been waitin’ here for him to come in so he could be arrested and hung for what he done to Ma and Pa.”

And long-time bartender Max Turcotte, for the first time in his life, felt like a proud father.