Western Short Story
Innovation turns the wheels of progress and advances civilization. Time just won’t stand still. So when the railroad won the transportation war with steamboat service, the gambler, Truck, left the rivers, took his grip and deck of cards and hit the rails. In only a few short years, he became as well known to all those who operated the rails as he’d once been on the rivers. He shrewdly harvested acquaintances with the engineers who ran the mighty engines, the conductors, the brakeman, the station agents, the porters. Always a garrulous type, those who met him found they were unable to resist his charm or the big tips he left.
August 1890, Lyons Beach, Ozora County.
Truck snagged a layover in the tiny burg of Lyon’s Beach. At least five hours or so said the station agent. He paid in advance to have his luggage loaded the moment his connecting train hit the station. He just knew that five hours of sheer boredom faced him. He squared up with the agent, and then followed the crowd of stranded passengers—men—toward what he considered the downtown area, which, in truth, was all there was of the town.
He followed the men—like a herd of sheep—into the first gin mill in his path—Shiny Tom’s.
Shiny Tom’s front door stood wide open. The same held true for the back door. This created a draft, much like a chimney. The draft drew the smoke outside, or that was the intent. However, this proved to be a feeble fable. It did little to rid the gin mill of smoke. When he stepped inside, it stood so thick in the air that even by standing on tiptoe, he still couldn’t orient himself to the layout of the interior, which sadly meant he couldn’t locate the bar. The joint smelled of stale beer, sweat and urine, whiskey and puke. Not all the urine was human. He saw a pocket-sized jenny against the north wall, alongside a long bench occupied to maximum capacity by topers who were enjoying their Saturday frolic. Truck had seen animals in drinking hells before and wasn’t even close to being shocked. With its eyes closed, the jenny unconsciously munched from what was left of a bale of hay lying on the floor.
The occupants of the bench spoke at full volume. All talked, none listened. Busy, as they were every Saturday in taverns across the country, giving the “boss” hell. Truck had heard every single one of the complaints made by men just like these in his wandering, gambling life.
Men yelled for more beer, for whiskey, for gin, and just for the hell of the yell. Saturdays—and strong drink—always set workingmen up as a special breed. No guff from the boss today. This was their day. If the “man” showed his mug inside Shiny Tom’s today, he’d likely wind up with a bad case of the gone-ass straight off. But he wasn’t here, wouldn’t be here. He’d learned long ago not to attempt to make friends with his “hands.” He was too big a chump for that, anyway, or so his workers liked to boast. Shiny Tom’s was their grand lodge.
When the tear ducts of his fiery eyes flushed away the burn of pollutants, he saw two men rolling around on the floor beating each other senseless or trying to do just that. One of them—the man on the bottom—had bitten off the lower half of his opponent’s ear. Blood flooded from his mouth, which made him look like some old drunk lady who’d applied her lipstick without the aid of a mirror. The man held the part of the ear he’d just amputated in a firm tooth-grip in the vise of his overpowering, hazardous jaws. He looked to Truck to be a new strain of hominid, yet to be named and studied. No one even tried to break them up. What’s more, it appeared no one even saw the two men wallowing around on the floor, amid the cigar stubs, tobacco juice, urine, and sawdust strewn about to keep down the dust, which, he noticed, was failing in its duties.
He stepped a few feet deeper into the establishment with great relish and cased the lovely joint.
“Get the hell out of my way, booby,” someone said, as if Truck were still standing in the flow of traffic, which he wasn’t, but not because he wasn’t trying. However, the lug was drunk. So, he decided to overlook him. He’d been drunk a time or so himself and knew the way the wind blew. His hearing seemed ready to shut down from the roar created by the bursting-at-the-seams house.
The joint smelled good to Truck, like a new book to a book lover. He liked the noise and filth so much—the odor—that he reckoned Shiny Tom’s tavern would suit his tastes just fine. In fact, he loved the joint, without even setting eyes on Shiny Tom himself. He figured he’d take to him as well when he did see him. He had good judgment when it came to determining a man’s character. But he’d barked on the wrong tree more than once, although he tried his best not to dwell on his mistakes.
“What a bully fine joint to while away a couple of hours,” he said. Already, he’d forgotten that he was supposed to be bored with this layover. He said it, but was unable to hear his own words, for the large rumble of shouted voices, of feet scuffing the floorboards, of the rubber bumpers of pool sticks striking the floor, which was symbolic of a summons for a fresh rack of cue balls.
The rack boys—five of them—were in a dandy run trying with a valiant effort to keep up with the demand commerce placed on them. But it looked to Truck as if they were bailing water from a boat that’d just struck a large stone in a rock-infested shoal and ripped out half the bottom. There was no way to keep up. They tried though. Truck gave them good credit for their courage and stamina. There were eight pool tables and one of billiards. Pretty much a sprawling affair.
He stood for a time attempting to locate the bar, for the smoke still hindered his vision. He tapped the shoulder of a man—one wearing dirty overalls. Truck figured the man hadn’t bothered to go home after leaving work at noon—even long enough to change into clean duds. He’d planned to ask the gent where the bar stood, but the man was full into his binge. He whirled around and swung his beer mug at Truck’s head. Truck ducked the man’s efforts with ease and stepped into the nearest low bank of clouds out of sight of the foolish and quite fortunate drunk.
For Truck was a crack boxing master, among his innumerable talents.
He wasn’t one to take advantage of a man on his Saturday spree. He stepped deeper into the clouds, and when he spied an old man—he must’ve been the local philosopher, for he had long white hair, down to his belt that flowed like an Alpine ski run, as well as a beard that fell to his knees—he quick-stepped over to him. Truck took him for the owner of the jenny, for he sat, sipping a drink from a filthy glass, eating peanuts, and fondling the side of the placid beast, which seemed a sure sign of ownership.
“Please sir,” he said. He removed his swell brown derby. “Is it possible that you’d be kind enough to direct me to the bar? I’m dry as a bone and nigh to dying of thirst?”
“Yes, I can” he said. “I will too, but under one condition.”
Dry, sure enough, but still patient, he said, “What’s this one condition?”
“That you fetch me a gin and tonic.” He turned then and pointed to the east to indicate where the bar lay hidden in the clouds.
“Will do.” He started to skip off, gaining new strength from the promise of a drink, but the old man caught him by the arm with finger knuckles knotty as dresser knobs.
“Plus, a bottle of red sody pop.”
“A bottle of red sody pop?”
“Yes sir. For my jenny here. She’s still thirsty even though she’s already downed a case of them.”
Truck turned and charged full-out into the cloudbank. By and by, he found the bar. To his regret, however, customers stood four-deep awaiting their turn. But after twenty-five minutes—according to the Seth Miller on the wall—he finally fought his way to the bar and placed his order.
Shiny Tom, decked out in a stiff white shirt, black bowtie, and emerald-green sleeve garters, stood with elbows propped upon the bar in a shouted conversation with a few men Truck figured were the barkeep’s cherished friends. He knew it was Shiny Tom by the high-gloss shine upon the good man’s bald head.
Taking time to converse with friends was all right, he figured, for four hired flunkies, with tongues that lapped down to their shirt pockets, battled, with stoic gallantry, to keep up, and the cash register was making proud music, playing a lively Sousa march tune. Shiny Tom’s joint proved to be a moneymaker, or so thought the gambler. A right vigorous bar, it was. And the ambiance was really some fine peaches.
He collected his order. He took the order, gin and tonic and whiskey, the bottle of red pop, back to where the philosopher sat stroking his jenny.
He handed over the drinks, and before he even sipped his own gin and tonic, the old fellow felt it necessary to attempt to quench the thirst of the jenny. Truck thought this noble of the old man and stood easy to enjoy his whiskey. He watched the animal swilling the red pop, and this furthered his pleasure.
After he returned from a second bar run, the old man patted a vacant seat right next to him. But, before he could take it, stepping slow, like a gentleman, a fellow in a neat gray worsted suit, standing beneath a 25.0 rated derby hat, which made Trucks’s own derby look like rat skin, attempted to beat his time with the seat.
It looked bad there for a time, but the philosopher, not one to lose a sponsor, tripped the man with a sudden outthrust leg. Then, while the man tried to scramble to his feet, Truck claimed triumph over the seat with a loud whoop, which perked the ears of the jenny. It then turned his way, broke loud wind, and showed him its yellow teeth in a forged smile.
The man in the worsted suit flashed Truck a mean eye, brushed off both knees and pressed on without further hatefulness. The old man smiled a sly smile, snorted a spiteful snicker, then continued to bottle-feed his animal.
After two hours of hearty quaffing, Truck talked the old man into holding his claim on his seat. He had to go to the toilet.
While inside the foul, rank-smelling room, taking a much-needed leak into a metal trough, he saw a long smudge of what he first took to be black ink on the wall.
But when the smudge moved, he changed his mind. He learned then that the smudge was nothing less than a huge black rafter snake, racing up the wall. Blacksnakes, Truck knew, were not poisonous but did have sharp, clingy teeth. Finished, he hastened his step back to his bench seat.
Another hour of red pop proved to be too much for the jenny. When the philosopher saw the animal under duress, he patted its side, and spoke sweet-talk to it like a concerned parent to an ill child. Despite the sweet-talk, the suffering animal, walked off going two steps per foot, turned four rapid circles and threw up all over the floor. Then, with a relieved stomach, it nuzzled the old man until the philosopher gave it another large swill of pop. Afterward it shook its mousy coat and flopped down with a solid thump upon the floor at its master’s feet not far from where it’d emptied the contents of its stomach. Bits of red vegetable matter lay in the foul mess. Truck thought it likely they were red bell peppers. Some gray sludge that might’ve been turnips was mixed in there as well, half-digested hay, and, of course, red sody pop.
Truck amused himself for the next thirty minutes by watching topers hurtling the large wash of thrown-up ooze on the floor not far from his seat.
At length, he heard the loud slam of the toilet door. A man who looked to be insane, scared to death, or both, raced away from the toilet. His trousers were down around his knees. He must’ve been doing serious business in the john, Truck figured. The wild man raced across the floor, as if he were trying out for the local cross-country team. Doing so in spite of the clothing wadded now around his ankles and screaming like Aunt Janey Jones at full voice with every leap.
The burly, bald barman caught up a pistol and gave pursuit. Then when he must’ve felt he was in range, he fired one off. But he was no marksman, Truck saw. But to his good credit he was in a full run, attempting to hit a moving target. So, the roving gambler calculated this allowance.
Truck leaned forward just as the fleeing man squared the corner at the end of the nearby billiards table. Now he saw what’d caused the ruckus. The fleeing man, trousers down around his ankles, wasn’t alone. For a blacksnake had attached itself—jaw teeth firm—to his backside. The very snake Truck had encountered on his earlier visit to the jakes. It dragged the floor behind the fleeing man as if the luckless fellow had grown a tail while going about his duties in the john.
A few of the braver chumps along the gauntlet, tried to stomp the man’s tail, but each and all missed by a good margin. The snake-man was now circling the pool tables and trying to take the tight square out of all corners, but with no success. By and by, charging way too fast, he crashed foursquare into the far wall under a full head of steam. Truck thought this would end his part in Shiny Tom’s gay circus. But, sad to say, he was only too wrong, which happened to him but infrequently, perhaps once every other year.
The sprinter leapt to his feet and lit out again. The snake still dragged along behind its host, as is predictable of all tails. Then, just in front of Truck’s eyes, its host hurtled the gunk, and the reptile dragged along through it as well. The blacksnake and its engine had little difficulty traversing the slimy terrain, but when Shiny Tom hit the sludge, his feet went skyward, his head floor-ward. When he struck the floor flat of his back, air burst from Shiny Tom’s lungs like a locomotive exhausting a vast quantity of steam.
But the unconquerable barman leapt to his feet, backside covered in swill, further stinking up the joint, and continued his pursuit with no though to conceding, still touching off his pistol.
Again, he fired, with no thought to reloading the device of death he held in his hand. At least it might’ve been a device of death in the hands of one better suited as a marksman, such as Truck.
Then, in front of the billiards table, the snake fell to the floor of its own devices, or perhaps from the good graces of our lord and savior. It then scampered forth with much haste beneath the nearest pool table.
Shiny Tom had suffered a minor back injury from his short flight and heavy fall and was unable to bend over the required distance to shoot the limbless, scaly, elongated creature that now lurked about in the dark shadows beneath the table.
"Quick, Slim, run behind the bar. Fetch the broom. See can you roust this old gentleman from under this here table. I mean to kill this old gent. He’s had run of this joint far too long.”
Truck learned then that this was not the first encounter between these two combatants.
Slim, no median runner himself, returned with the broom in a twinkle of a fair maiden's eye. He set to work then to drive the snake from its stronghold, where it appeared it was about to make its last stand.
Slim poked the grip end of the broom under the table first and jabbed about for a spell.
“Turn the broom around, idiot,” yelled Shiny Tom. He had one of those bulging voices that would’ve served him well as a ringmaster of the Boggs & Shepherd Circus. “Sweep him out of there. Ain’t you never operated no broom?"
It soon became obvious to all the snake, had taken up residence beneath the table, and had settled in until the next due date of the tax census.
Slim got down on his knees then and did swell duty. He shoved and poked and brushed and swept. But, with no good result. The snake knew its rights. It arched its neck in defiance like a work-weary mule.
By and by, the creature decided to run a bluff. It unhinged its jaws, laid its lower mandible far down on its neck. Its upper jaw ran up past the line of sight of its beady, snaky eyes. The insides of its mouth looked as white as—as white as ... salt.
When he saw this, Slim leapt upward so fast he struck his skull on the ledge of the pool table. The table shifted nary an inch, but the hapless, Slim? Well, he fell flat on his face, out cold.
A couple of thoughtful gents grabbed him by the ankles. They dragged the poor fellow out of the flow of traffic where he might find safety until he battled back from the thick and wooly darkness that always seems to accompany oblivion.
Another of Shiny Tom’s bravo’s snatched up the fallen broom, dropped to his knees, and advanced on the snake.
But straightaway, he backed out of danger. Truck watched as he looked up at Shiny Tom, and in his most intrepid voice said, "I don't know 'bout this here, Tom. This mightn't be the creature we think 'tis."
Three of the bystanders bent, peeked beneath the table, and rose as one to agree with the other old boy. One said, "I think we might just have ourselves a cottonmouth on our hands."
Shiny Tom's face turned much redder. The broad eyebrows that hovered above his pale orbs fluttered like birds in flight.
"Egadfrey." he yelled. "I'm in a room full of complete idiots. That there ain't no such a damn thing as a cottonmouth."
The old boy assaulted by the snake while in the john, sat upon the floor now against the wall. He shook his head and mumbled thankful prayers for his safe delivery. No one there felt they should offer him any sympathy whatsoever, or so it appeared to the gambler.
Truck now heard the philosopher laughing heartily, joined occasionally by same from the jenny.
The snake, by now, sat in a curl with head reared, and stared shamelessly into Shiny Tom’s eyes. Then seeing it couldn’t stare down the barman, it struck at him a couple of times, then fled with the intention of exiting on the far side of the table.
The entire fearless troop scampered to the other side. They screamed and yelled at Tom in top lung with each step. They implored him to shoot the snake without further delay. Fortunately, for all there, Shiny Tom was the only man heeled.
Truck saw his friend, the philosopher, behind the bar, building himself a fresh gin and tonic, disinclined to wait for the end of the engagement, evidently. His laughter rattled the rows of glasses behind the bar, and when he reached his bench seat, the jenny commenced laughing along with the old-timer.
Shiny Tom drew a bead on the departing snake.
As per his average, he missed.
The bedlamites, in pursuit, bounced with glee off one another, off the walls, off of and even over the pool tables, blind to everything, except their manic chase.
After much pursuit, they managed to corner the scaly beast again.
"Egadfrey," Shiny Tom yelled. "I've got you now, my bully, slithering friend. Lay back, boys. Lay back. I mean to clip his fearsome head from his shoulders with one true shot from this bulldog pistol.”
Tom’s courageous students stood back, save for a few who were more foolish. Shiny Tom drew a "true" bead. The stouthearted battalion sensed great things in the offing.
The barkeep took his good time. But, at the precise moment he fired one off, the snake decided to move. The movement caused an instinctive leaping foot stomp from one of the men—the same gent who wore the worsted suit Truck had beaten to the bench seat earlier. The snake-stomper had nearly as poor aim as did Shiny Tom. He missed his target. Shiny Tom missed his primary target as well. However, he did manage to hit the brave soldier in the metatarsals, and Truck reckoned by this that his aim had improved. He allowed then the fellow in the worsted suit was a man born to lose.
The snake scurried off like its tail was ablaze and it in search of a cool body of water large enough in which to extinguish the flame. On it fled. In and out, between and through. Round and about the busy stomping feet.
The wounded comrade hobbled along. He grabbed at his foot and wept with no shame. No one, however, cared at all about the sorry chump's condition, but continued the pursuit, screaming to lift the rafters. It appeared several times they’d trapped the supple creature, but due to their ineptitude, it always managed to make escape without much trouble, suffering absolutely no harm.
The philosopher’s laughter ruffled his beard like a stage curtain. His jenny broke bountiful air and laughed along.
"Shut them doors," screamed Shiny Tom. "Don't let him outside."
Truck stood as close to the action as he dared, enjoying the chase, and had totally forgotten time in a way a man will do during moments of high excitement when the adrenaline flows like an artesian well. So when he looked up to the sound of his friend calling from the bench seat, he saw him waving to attract his attention.
"In station, young sir," he cried. "Your train's in station."
“Ain’t this is a poor time for the train to show?” he muttered. Being a powerful runner though, he figured he’d see the jolly performance to its conclusion.
The snake headed for a corner. It seemed to all there it’d made a fatal mistake. There was nowhere for it to go. The wall would stop him.
"Egad, boys. We got him now," the barkeep shouted.
But the snake lunged straight up the wall and increased its speed as it gained altitude.
Amazed for the moment, all stood and gaped, watching the goal it had in mind. By and by, in spite of the fact the ceiling was covered in pressed tin, it made for a rat hole gnawed in the plaster of the wall just below where it and tin met.
"Shoot, Tom," said Slim. He’d recovered just now and rejoined the posse. "Shoot the damned thing. It's headin' for that hole."
"Yes, shoot, Tom."
"Egad, sir ... it's gettin' away.”
Shiny Tom held his fire. He did have the weapon raised however and had drawn a bead along its shiny blue barrel.
Shoot, Tom, if ever you plan to."
The august bartender held off, with the pistol held aloft. His balding pate turned the light right fine even in the murky, smoke-filled room.
The snake now was but a few feet from freedom. Tension swelled the air like biblical hatred.
"Shoot, Tom. Or give me that there gun, and I'll do 'er for you."
"Train, boy," cried the sage."Train's in station. Engine isn't going to the house to be serviced. She's a run-through."
The jenny broke wind again, bared its teeth, and laughed loud and crow-like.
Truck had but little time. Still—well, hell, he wanted to see this adventure to its dramatic end.
"Yes, shoot the bugger."
The snake now had its head buried in the hole.
"Train, boy, train. You're fixing to get left.
He had to make his move now or spend several further long hours in this burg. He commenced walking backward toward the door.
Just when all looked dire in defeat, Shiny Tom jerked alert. He pulled down again on the snake.
Truck paused at the door, one foot inside, one outside.
A hush like what will probably fall over all creation at the exact moment the cruel comet destined eons ago to strike Earth, thereby ending time, now enveloped that glorious gin mill.
“I daren't leave now even if it means being stranded the night through.”
Just then, he heard the saddest, sorriest sound of his entire life. Instead of a mighty "boom" a pale puff of smoke rising from the barrel of the gun, and a large blacksnake falling dead from on high, he heard instead a dry, melancholy click.
The hammer had fallen on an empty chamber.
The snake disappeared into the rafters, where it seemed it made its home.
Shiny Tom turned to Slim. "Hell's afire, Slim. I do believe I just run out of ammo."
This then was it. The game was up.
Truck spun about and pulled foot in full gallop. By the time he reached the middle of the street, still a hundred yards to go, the iron monster shook and quaked like some enormous beast attempting to shed rainwater from its hide.
A long passage of steam issued to the ground from its boiler port. Smoke streamed skyward. Truck ran faster.
Now that he’d witnessed a decisive anti-climax to the late struggle, there was but one goal in mind. He must make the train. He wouldn’t be satisfied to stay the night in this burg. He leapt up onto the platform. The train had picked up speed. This’d be touch and go. If only he didn't run out of air.
Off-loaded passengers stood and watched. Some cheered for Truck. The majority, of course, rooted for the train.
He ran as never before. The grab-iron, shiny as steel in the sunshine, lured him on.
He threw out a hand, felt the grab-iron with the tip of his middle finger. The crowd behind him jeered and cheered at the same time, and in full lung.
He was almost all in. His wind was gone. But he wasn't man enough to get left. He couldn't face that mob of unruly cutthroats behind him. Besides that, his entire outfit had already been loaded in the baggage car. He saw no other choice.
His middle finger found a friend in the ring finger. Joined soon by his index finger, and then by the pinky as well.
He closed his hand on the iron. He made his leap, lashed out with his left hand toward the far grab-iron, and swung up onto the back platform like a slick, old-head brakeman. By now, the train had increased speed. It fairly clicked and clacked down the rails.
He chanced a peek up at the hog-head on his high engine seat. Even from the distance of six passenger cars, he saw a large smile plastered wide upon his fat mug.
With all due gratitude, he swept out his handkerchief, and highballed him.
“Toot-Tootey-Toot-TOOOOOoooooooooooot!” the hogger responded in his signature whistle.
Truck clomped on up the steps, and by the time he entered the car in a scout of the club car and the bar, the engineer already had the throttle in number four position.
Then, as he restored his wind and found his way through the first car, they fairly whizzed along. The brave engineman now had the throttle all the way up in number eight,
Truck figured. Buried to the maximum.
Feeling vinegary in success, he hailed a plump, luscious and viperous-looking young female. Even though he was well-known on this line, he didn’t recognize her, and this whetted his appetite for fresh female companionship.
"Could you tell me where the bar is, miss? I’m dry as a bone, and nigh to dying of thirst."
She cast a bold, exploratory eye at Truck, smiled, pleased by what she saw evidently, and with much pluck and downright sass, said, "I can't tell you where ‘tis, but I most assuredly can and will show you the way. Just you follow me, big boy."
Follow her he did, with his eye locked tight on the wonderful undulations of her gorgeous hips, and the grand and firm bounce of her young and stately rump.
Onward, sped the train. Onward toward more, even greater accomplishments and adventures, or so hoped Truck, the tireless roving railroad gambler.