Western Short Story
In the Shadow of the Hill 
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

“Juice Jorgen” as he already had come to be called by the barkeep and saloon owner, Jugs Johnson, arrived dead-drunk in early morning, the sun rising over the near hilltop toward a day of heat, and other myriad surprises that often wake up little towns, or keeps them awake long after darkness makes its entry into the township of Killacut, near the current border between Texas and Mexico.

But Juice corralled the day on his own, spilling money on the bar of the Shadow Saloon like it was confetti, other early-birders snatching some of the loot for their own thirsts in a quick scramble that seemed to bring them out of a catharsis of sorts, as though pretense was part of their game of scrounging free drinks from any and all sources, like Juice, a target for any means or manner.

Jugs Johnson held the reigns all day long and only closed the place when sleep was about to come down on top of him no matter what time of day it was, “but not too damned often,” he would add as a note.

This little town in the shadow of the hill had just been further drawn down to its knees by a series of murders that some folks called “murders without cause,” as none of the victims had ever hurt anybody, messed up a land deal, infringed on a relationship, bothered the sleepy, looked too strangely at any other folks in town, or uttered a deep curse in front of an older woman of the town, not many at the current count, as life had so arranged it, calling the shots.

“They were damned near angels, is what I say about them,” said Jugs at the saloon, “and I mean every one of them. I’m willin’ to bet that somebody’s usin’ a strange way to tell us somethin’ about us all that we don’t know, none of us. Like we ain’t smart enough to get this on our own, dummies that we are. Me? I’m in that mix too, like I don’t have a snot of an idea of what the Hell is goin’ on here.”

Jugs was lecturing in his way the few folks at the early bar knew first hand, and looking at the new customer already bent over his day by the drink. “Why, look at that new fella at the end of the bar, who’s already lost this day for gettin’ anythin’ done on his own, poor slob who already got a new name ‘cause we ain’t been introduced and I gave him one of my own and have called him ‘Juice’ since he walked in here first thing today like he was wide awake for me and now’s half sleepin’ off the day that ain’t done doin’ its travelin’ yet,”

It was Jugs doing a daily spiel on things apparent or often not so apparent and which Jug thought they ought to be noted, a word or two said in behalf of them, to those who’d listen.

Juice, leaning sideways in his seat, almost spilling his new drink just poured out in front of him,

smiled back at Jugs and the other folks in the room like he was a stray visitor who smelled this joint rather than found it, a doggie loose of his momma during the night.

At one point, he looked at Jugs and said, “Not too many Mexicans in here, if there’s any.

Don’t they like this place? Ain’t this right near the border? Ain’t like the other places I been in along the trail, like they get to clean up once in a while to keep ‘em happy and singin’ for a few drinks. And their ladies bein’ so good to ‘em with the singin’ and happy talk.”

Jugs said, “Oh, they ain’t here yet,” and immediately shut his mouth as if he had spoken too loudly or had shot off his mouth without thinking what he was going to say. It could be a toss-up.

Truth is, Juice was no more a drunk than Jugs was, both men with separate roles in life, one being a saloon owner in Killacut, and the other a special deputy of the Texas State Troopers Anticrime Unit of the State Assembly of Correctional Routines of Extra Deployment, at the capital, and behind shielded mouths only mentioned as simply and always as SACRED. And that organization maintained their own budget and special assignments with very special agents. One of those agents being Grady Orion, now and for the general future called Juice, by the barkeep and saloon owner who had sway in such matters. Dubbed and be dubbed, there was no way out of that sobriquet once posted by the man behind the bar.

Back in his regular daily world, Grady Orion had received a short note, very privately, that said, “Please join me in my home this evening about 8.” There was no signature, but Grady Orion knew the penmanship and the face of the messenger, but facially only and not by name.

Under cover of darkness, after hitching his horse to a clump of thick brush at least 100 yards from the front door of the note writer, supposing if he was being so secretive in his invitation, then his arrival should also be kept secretive as well.

“Grady,” said the official as he opened the door, “It is a pleasure to see you and I respect your method of arrival. We of the committee have decided that we need an inside man for strict undercover work where the state is the target of some highfaluting hi-jinks, to say the least, and it must be kept secret. There are some powerful forces in Mexico, and with constituents of a kind in local areas, who are bent on taking back all of Texas, or as much as they can grab amid a lot of noise, gunfire and payoffs as large as you might imagine. They are willing to spend all kinds of money, energy, and manpower in any way they can to disrupt Texas’s aims and responses in this matter. It is scheduled to start soon and will be centered near the town of Killacut, hardly a breath of a town on the border, but has plenty of open spaces for quick rushes of forces or whatever.”

“You need seeing eyes in that there town, sir?” said Grady, his mind already conceiving a kind of cover he’d most likely need to carry out any infiltration work, him already in the race against time, culture, evasion, soft acceptance for the victorious.

“Sure do, Grady, and as soon as we can. I swear it’s going to bubble over soon and I have no idea what kind of impact it will have on our citizens, though it’s a sure bet to be damned serious.”

“I’ll be in there as soon as I can get there, sir. And how do you want my reports? What manner? How quickly?”

+You make up your mind concerning the matter of the report, Grady, and in whatever way seems appropriate for you.” He handed him a note that said name, address, contact manner, as appropriate. “Lock that information in your mind and then destroy the paper. I’ll respond how and when as needed.”

There was a solid shake of hands between two select men, bonded in an agreement sure to last for centuries as each man saw it coming down the years.

In two days of hard riding, marking all his clothes as demanded by his cover and the trail itself, he was sitting at the bar with Jugs studying him with an ominous curiosity that any stranger drew from the saloon keeper. The new customer had no marks, permanent or otherwise, on his face, beard seemed fairly new, though some time from a good razor as growth was different on left and right patches. The backs of his hands carried no scars or any marks of an awed nature, like combat with a harsh enemy, or any fights to the death. He otherwise appeared as clean as a whistle, as some folk might have said, not caring one way or another when it came to routine drunks whose practiced dialects changed when demanded by the moment.

He looked like a drunk or a trail bum, talked like one, kept promising that he was about to fall off the stool onto the floor, like some people watch the minute hand on a wall clock while they’re drinking yet another drink.

The more the barkeep spoke to any customers was measured by Grady, small patches of words being repeated every so often, as if messages or secrets were being transmitted, orders being carried out, action directives being declared. This alert agent, still promising to fall off the stool any part of the day and yet handling his drinks, was collecting data and information from a natural big-mouth, a bartender who believed nobody generally paid any attention to him as long as the drinks kept coming their way.

Grady Orion thought him to be a gold mine of notice and intent: and he’d note every word in every conversation, “so help me, Hannah.” Grady made a decision that he’d not need to move around the area, that he’d find all he needed to find right here from an unintended bigmouth.

For more than a full week, Grady slipped swayfully from his stool at the bar to slip into the night, find a secret place to re-gather and re-think all the information sent his way, and managed to forward any declarations by methods he controlled with his life and promise.

When the suspected code words began to change, he listened closely, and finally, after a full week of info and drink, he detected a new energy in the language of the code, new phrases suddenly introduced into old phrases, and found a day of intention to be noted as a day of invasion into Texas proper right there in the wide open areas around Killacut.

Once more, he slipped off the stool in the saloon, slipped into the dark night, him suddenly sober as you’d have him, to deliver his final message, as promised. Then, in hidden spot in the lee of the hill, in the very shadow of the hill, he began to write his private words about the affair, for a direct contribution to his family’s history, so that years later it would come into my hands for this measure, as relayed herein.