Western Short Story
He’d grown that way, at the catcalls, inuendoes, mere fun when he knew who was casting the joke rather than who it was on, and it generally being him. Good friends, old pals of the lot, called him Jay. Others, in mixed company, with support in the mix of listeners, called him Judy, and often said it the way it was meant, mean streaks coming with deep breaths, saloon stuff at its zenith.
It could be at a streak if he let it be so. Valor, though, was part of his stance, a rugged, square-shouldered, husky man, and made moreso high in the saddle.
He turned away from some, a half-smile on his face, or found indignity a quick customer for a quick pick. But jokes or not, it never came to guns, which he handled as good as anybody in the region. His father, who had named him at birth, for his dead brother, told him that the change in circumstances would come when he won appointment as sheriff, long a dream of both of them, once evidence came that he was not only a crack shout from either hand, But just as quick getting them from their holsters strapped at his sides.
“There’ll be lots of it, Jay, once the badge is on your chest, and perhaps from the very first day, so best be aware of it. Some of it will be the harmless joking you’re used to, and some will be vile and try to make you reach for a weapon. That’s going to be your great caution. Be alert to whom you’re talking to, know something about him. How he stands as a citizen, what his business and loyalty find favor in, if he’s a possible joker or not. You have to be equipped that way, and we know it will get rocky down the road, down-right rocky!”
The old gent was right on the mark with the first visitor to enter Jay’s newly inherited office in the middle of Barton’s Folly in Colorado, mountains dancing in the distance, some with summer snow peaks, cow tracks near and far on the stretch of earth miles wide, pens empty or full for market plans, trail-making, business at the slow end of slow travel, often for long distances to markets which had a habit of moving around because of demand, passage, tribal interference,
The stranger coming into his office said outright, “Are you Judy the sheriff who carries two guns?”
The smirk was on his face, as if he had been in the saloon, brought up the question, and dared go ask it.
Quicker than an intake of breath, both guns came off the sheriff’s hips and were leveled at the stranger, suddenly not smiling. Not at all. Not a trace of a grin. Question spoke and answered, and countenance change erupting on the stranger. He held out both empty hands in a normal “don’t shoot” expression.
“I did it on a dare,” he explained. “Some gent at the saloon told me I’d get a big surprise. I didn’t know if he was serious or joking with me, and so with you.”
Jay Judy said, quizzically, half the easement of a smile on his face, “Was he a tall dude, blond hair sneaking out of his sombrero, wearing dungarees like they had already been to Hell and back?”
“By God, Sheriff, you knowed him right off, and now I remember his wide grin like I should have known right that minute he was up to some funny business.”
“That’s Kirk Downey, a good friend of mine who took a liking to you and wanted to square away early any and all questions about this here sheriff at Barton’s Folly, Jason Judy. My friends call me Jay or Jace. You got your pick and that’s as far as the picks go., and when you didn’t go for your own guns, it was a give-away for me. It’s easy to see someone like Kirk setting it up, clearing the air in the best way he knows.”
“Jay suits me, Sheriff. I’ll go with that.” They shook hands and the sheriff replied, “Let’s go back there and I’ll treat you to a drink. What’s your name and what brings you here?”
The two men, the two strangers, had appraised each other and knew each the other in quick fashion, quick as the arrangement had been.
Halfway across the dusty road, halfway to the saloon, they were friends, Jason Judy and Burt Phillips, cowboy seeking work. He wore guns that said his trade could be a variety of jobs accepted and handled to satisfaction, especially in a territory new to him, unknown to others, including a new sheriff, and bankers as well as gun dealers, salesmen, stagecoach drivers, and all other strangers. Life around those parts was a barrel of temptation, prompted by thirst, hunger, greed, and the chance of getting a good job with a good outfit.
There were plenty of cows, plenty of rustlers, plenty of Apaches, Comanches, Shoshones, and Utes hungry for beefsteaks on herding routes, so gunplay was frequently needed from cowboys driving a herd to market, all herders sworn to the task at hand.
Jay Judy admitted on the short walk that the occurrences like the one just set up by a friend, would come from others in the saloon, for a different purpose, with a different approach. “According to who’s here today, they can come from any angle and I’ll recognize most sources. It’s the new customers that’ll join the fun or poke their own feelings about my name. Nothing more than that unless I hear in their voices, see it in their eyes, recognize a stance I’ve seen before that sort of announces itself, like saying, “Here I am. Want to take me on?”
“Is it always like that, Jay?” Burt Phillips’ eyes were wide open.
“Every time out,” he snickered, “or every time I walk into the saloon.
As they stepped in through the saloon door, Jay Judy said, “There’s new faces here I see already., so there’ll be some fun or serious challenges. You can go off on your own, if you want, Burt. Won’t bother me.”
“Hell, Jay, I don’t quit that easy,” but his hands were well-clear of his sidearms.
The first rugged voice, said, as though he had been practicing the words the exact way he wanted to deliver them, “Hey, Judy, you got any more sisters at home?”
Those words weren’t out of his mouth for two seconds, when he was knocked down with a mighty wallop from the sheriff, who stood over him and said, “That’s no way to get along in this town. Do we have that straight?”
From the floor came a sort of apology and acceptance in one sentence: “I should have known they were pulling my tail, Sheriff. Damned sorry I been so dumb, but it sounded like so much fun, I couldn’t let it go.”
The sheriff took the opportunity to advise all he could in a few words. “My Pa said we used to say ‘Live and learn, but I say it should be ‘Learn and live.”
The hush circled around the room, settling in places at attention, the idea just proved only minutes before, like a classroom in the saloon.
It was like homework already done.