Western Short Story
The one man in the Big Dog Saloon, in a small corner of New Mexico, that the barkeep, Joe Kittering, did not know, had not seen before, made him wonder what kind of horse he was riding. Horses, for Joe Kittering, told a lot about their riders. For the money, for rider or owner, the quarter horse was most valuable because of its price, endurance, its build and muscle set, agility on a drive, and that breed’s smooth responses under pressure, all according to which kind of demands were directed for it. And that breed came ahead of Appaloosa, Clydesdales, Mustangs, Percherons, Morgans or a dozen other breeds he was familiar with. Each one also told him about its rider or owner, all concerning abilities of the animal under saddle toting a rider.
In his quick thoughts about horses, he spotted an old customer come into the saloon, eyed him aside, and asked, like a nosy busy-body, “Nick, you see any new horses tied up out front? Anything special in color or breed as measured by a good horseman like yourself?”
That was enough to puff up Nick for a quick reply, him being a man of many words.
For sure, it did not take much to get Nick Goring to talk, about anything that came up in conversation, like horses, women, roses, rags or rifles, you name it, and so it was that he told him there was a special Thoroughbred at the tie rail, one he didn’t get to see too often on local ranches for cattle driving or even grazing and attending locally on available grass. All the other horses were the regular quarter horses that cowboys treated like family every time they put a blanket on and saddled him up; for a day’s work at hand, due to be done the best way possible for man and animal, paid and fed all the way to completion, most likely, mostly expected.
“I tell you, Joe,” replied Nick, “this one’s a Thoroughbred ‘n’ stands like a king, all royalty, all the way through, and shiny black like Hell lost its fire for getting rid of yesterday’s spoilage and spillage. It’s about as proud as a victory parade on a march, regal black, proud as a new dad at first announcement and don’t even need a crowd to shine for.” For the first time this day, and the first day in a long spell, Nick went silent, completely out of breath, and hung his hands by his side as though he’d lost something precious.
Kittering, in turn, looked around at the customers in the room and spotted the one face he had not seen before, a handsome gent under sombrero now lounging at the far end of the bar, with a view of the whole room, front door to secret exit at one end, in one corner. He saw the man double-check the immediate surroundings in the corner he had picked for himself, obviously for some purpose. Which certainly was not theft. So, if not, perhaps it was on the legal side, marshal not displaying his shield, his shining star, his unspoken but heard legal force.
The barkeep, reader of men, too, was right on the button about the man taking in everything in sight, everything spoken and heard, every move, slight or itchy, being made in the whole saloon, and ready for any demand at action.
This trip he was Jack Felton, third sobriquet this month for him in a search for a vaunted killer, gunman, bank robber, hostage taker with one girl of 18, blue-eyed, beautiful Clarie Mifton, still missing, and not a word about her for a month; but this saloon in a town on the way further west, where a rider kept reigns in one hand on a following mount sitting a young girl, constantly quiet but red-eyed when passing a stranger on the trail, like she could be shot, or the stranger met on the trail might suffer the same fate, if a word was uttered by her.
In truth, he was Twich Dawson, Federal Marshal-at-Large for the whole territory of New Mexico, with legal power in any butting territory or state he happened to enter while on the trail of a wanted man. Twich himself was a dead-eye shot with either pistol he carried or the long rifle in its scabbard on his saddle, enough firepower, with good strategy, to hold off or take on a small army of bandits or thugs not knowing their worst enemy at work.
Each time Twich left home on a job, his wife, Matilda, said, “Bring my man and my kids’ daddy back to me after this chase. I’ll be counting on you.” She was fully aware of how good his shooting practices had been, what his past had been like, and prayed it continued.
Now, as one Jack Felton, he sat alone in The Big Dog Saloon, at work but not looking like he was at work, his eyes on the crowd, the door, new customers, horses and riders passing the place all the time, as if some were checking it out to, just as Jack Felton, alias, was. The girl would not be seen in town, for sure, but a drinker needed a saloon or a new supply of liquor, so to town he must go, or come and leave the girl bound up in some small shack taken, bought or rented on the sly, for minimal use; rest his mount, rest himself, seek other relaxation for his soul.
For most men on the move, liquor did the trick; that meant, as he had deduced, a saloon or a liquor seller. The only other provider would come from theft of goods from wayside cabins. Such a splurge would normally leave a trail, like the one he was on at this moment, seeking a man he had never seen, but knew the ways of such men.
That thought had barely cleared his mind, when a rustle at the saloon door was heard, followed by a string of curses when a boot was caught in an entrance crack and a stumble could be imagined full bore. It must be a traveling man, on a long journey, throat gone dry, knotted up by travel, tired of some kind of responsibility or onus, to catch him at his worst.
Thus, he walked toward the one man who was on his tail without him knowing it, either of them, though Alias Jack Felton managed a small smile to escape his countenance as the stranger approached the bar, discovery not part of his mind, but a yen for whiskey.
While Kittering knew his horses to a “T”, Alias Jack Felton knew his men, the breakaway kind, the criminal kind, the deadly kind, and the kind that liquor drove
his engine no matter where he went or what he did, like walk directly toward the man chasing him these long, struggling days.
Alias Jack Felton could not say a word, had to let the man be invited by the barkeep, lounge easily at the bar, feel the comfort of the whiskey he sought and bought, but he’d listen to the man gab, hear the blowhard shoot off his mouth if he was a mind, for the girl was the feature, her rescue and freedom of the real importance. He listened to the repartee.
Kittering said, “Well, pal, twice here in two days, and glad to see you again. Want the usual? Yours for the asking.”
“You’re right, barman. The usual.” He looked around lazily, second time lazily, and Kittering said, “You must have found someplace comfortable.” It was more of a question than a statement.
“Right you are again, barman, an old miner’s cabin and a shed with damned few of his tools still there, out there on the low hills. He ever hit anything before he moved on?”
“Not a sliver. Just picked up one day and took off. Never did see him again, must be near two years now. Time flies.” He poured the man his drink.
Felton ordered, “One for the road, barkeep. Up and at ‘em, my father used to say before he did it himself. Not a word back ever since, so I keep moving. Thanks for your hospitality.” He slipped out of the Big Dog Saloon as though he had never been there in his whole life. But once past the edge of town, out of sight of all behind him, he lit out for the hills, and the long-forgotten cabin, a prayer on his lips, in his throat.
The cabin was a mess, the bed the sole piece complete in a room with broken chairs, a three-legged table, and other unusable items in total disarray. His heart almost fell down through his chest, when he thought of the shed.
He opened the shed door, and there staring at him, knotted in rope to a chair, her eyes as blue as the clear heavens on a glorious day, with a bandana stuffed and tied near her mouth, was Clarie Mifton, no longer missing. But now crying with joy as the ropes and bandana were loosened, and she fell freely into the arms of Alias Jack Felton.
Folks at the Big Dog Saloon tell the story of a lawman storming into the saloon, guns drawn, and handcuffing an unknown man, and leading his prisoner and a girl out of town, him like he was heading a three-horse parade. No names were ever cast about because folks were never sure who was who, the good, the lovely and the bad man still full of curses, probably on his way to the Hell he had created on his own.