Western Short Story
Murder Plays a Merry Tune
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

Nobody else in Flagstaff could play the fiddle like Old Jack No-Last-Name, age indeterminate, origin unknown, never seen on a horse from anyone’s recollection, and favorite tune not ever declared. When a dance was being set up by a local, the organizer made sure Old Jack was the chief attraction. If it was a wedding celebration, Old Jack came second only to the bride.

“The man can strum and pick and plunk and whale and whump the bejeebers out of that little box,” Sheriff Mark Dixon said whenever asked. “I wouldn’t hold a dance in a hundred miles of Flagstaff without horse-tying him and bringing him right to the dance.” He winked when he added, “Whether he likes it or not or whether he likes you or not. One thing’s plumb certain … when he strums that first string to vibrating, nothing can stop him for the night less’n it’s too much of the punch. Man could have been dead by now, he’s done so many dances hereabouts.”

The fairly new bartender at the Lost Coyote Saloon, Arnie Briggs, asked the sheriff if it was true that nobody knew where Old Jack had come from. “Seems far-fetched nobody has any idea where he sprung from.”

Dixon replied, “One day he wasn’t here and the next day there he was playing that fiddle like he’d been here forever, the folks just crazy to hear him bow it like it was the last song he’d ever play.”

“You ever think something went on in back of him, back wherever he popped up from?”

“No posters ever come up on him. Course, with that beard, who’d know what he looks like for true. And we’ve never had a name to pin on him, so if he’s hiding, he’s done it good. Anyway, who’d want to get him into jail? He’s got lots of rhythm left even as old as he is. Man’s magic. And old as the mountains to begin with.”

Briggs said, “Sounds like he’s got lots of sympathy working for him, Sheriff.”

“That’s probably truer than any of us believe,” the sheriff summed it up.

So it went for Old Jack and Flagstaff for a good number of years and Jack not showing signs of aging at all, in the view of most people.

“I swear,” Dixon’s wife Doris said, “that I feel 10 years older and that old man hasn’t aged a bit. Think he’s latched onto any of that real miracle stuff the drummers are always trying to sell?”

Doris Dixon was sitting with her chums in their twice weekly knitting and crocheting circle. The group included three rancher’s wives, and the wives of the banker and the manager of the general store and the daughter of one of the ranch wives.

“What makes you say that, Doris?” one of them said. “None of that stuff is for real. I’ve never seen it work, on anybody.” She said it slyly as if all present could be eliminated, including herself.

“Think if it was,” Doris said. “Think about Old Jack and tell me if you think he’s aged any at all.”

“Well, with that beard, how can we tell?” Emma Lou Harris stopped crocheting.

Not to be outdone with another question, Doris Dixon said, “Has he slowed down one bit in 10 years? I say not one bit. Last week at Pearl’s wedding he was spectacular. He went on for hours. How can an old man like him do it? It’s like if he hasn’t gotten any younger, he damned sure doesn’t look or act any older. But we all do. We all agree to that, Don’t we?”

There were no takers for an answer, but the youngest one, the daughter of a rancher, said, “Men are different, aren’t they?” She was a spinster and a few looks were flashed with subtle covers on them.

“Well I admit my Paulie looks older than he is,” Arliss Thurlow said, another rancher’s wife, “but he went through the damned war almost all the way. Anyone would age in a war, if they saw the real war, if it was around them all the time, like it was with Paulie.”

“C’mon, girls,” Doris said, “we’re only talking about Old Jack and if there’s a possibility he’s found something special to at least make him appear younger than he is, if not really younger.”

Arliss Thurlow jumped right in. “If there was, I’d have gotten it for Paulie.” She looked around for help. “Wouldn’t I have?” she said.

Again, no answers.

“What we ought to do,” Doris Dixon said, “is say no more on the subject, but keep it in mind. Meanwhile, any chance we get, we study Old Jack, see what makes him tick, what he does, where he goes, what he drinks if we can find out, but not about the booze. We know he gets enough of that.”

All the ladies of the sewing circle agreed to keep their eyes open, to pry where necessary, and to keep a book on Old Jack, find out what he was up to in his older years. Each one wondering if the mystery would ever be brought to light.

In a few weeks’ time it broke loose, at the Lost Coyote Saloon.

Two strangers were at the bar and not noticing each other, until one looked up and studied the other stranger for a minute. He saw a tall man, maybe 5 or 6 inches taller than he was, wearing a gray Stetson with a purple band with a yellow line running through the middle of the purple band. It stood out like a badge or an eagle’s feather stuck in a hair braid, it was that distinctive. Even Briggs the bartender hadn’t seen one like it before, and he had worked in a dozen saloons. The man’s hands, wrapped around a glass of beer, had long fingers that appeared tapered, gentle, not used to hard work. He could have been a musician, an actor, a teller from a bank; but not a drover, not a cowman or a horse trader.

Then the thought hit Briggs that he was a fast gun, a hired gun. The hands would suit such activity.

Old Jack, sitting alone at the back of the room had been studying each one, which the bartender had noticed. Strings and connections, the bartender figured, were somehow being made in a silent and personal mode. Old Jack’s interest was higher than usual, he thought, and something unknown but felt managed to crawl into the air.

Briggs had not seen Old Jack show so much interest in strangers since Briggs himself had started working in the saloon almost a year earlier. The only prompt that might get Old Jack up and working at things in a hurry was the name of a tune or a half song on some drunken drover’s lips. “Crazy Lady” might do it or “Giddy Lizzie’s Got too Busy” or “Mame Ain’t My Name and I’ll Show You Why.” Old Jack knew every song that leaked from a drunk’s mouth, and could swing into it as if he’d played it a thousand times already, the old fiddle of his twanging and rippling away like bees roughed in the hive.

But here, with notice being made right in front of him, Briggs believed he was in on the beginning of new information, old connections coming anew. Old Jack’s interest was not casual, for now he was leaning forward on his hands, elbows locked on top of the table, the old eyes wide and intent.

Of that, Briggs was certain.

The tall stranger with the purple/yellow band in his hat saw the other stranger turn toward him and start walking down the bar. Old Jack saw the move of both men. Briggs saw it too.

The man walking looked at the tall man and said, “Are you from Missouri, mister?”

Old Jack leaped from his chair, yelling loudly, “Bernie, he’s not the one. That’s not him, Bernie. He ain’t come in here yet.”

The stranger now called Bernie, stopped in his place, looked at Old Jack, then looked at the tall man, then back at Old Jack. “Is that really you, Uncle Jack? You been here all the time?”

“It’s me, Bernie. He’s got relatives here, but he never showed. Not when I’ve been looking.”

“My god, how long you been here?”

“Near as I know, about 10 years now, or going on 10. He’s probably dead and buried out on the grass or up in the hills. One of the others might have caught him and hung him on the spot. I’ve never heard a word, except he promised he’d come here one day to see his only relatives. That’s all I had to go on. I never had a trail sign in front of me, never heard a word ‘cept what I just told you.”

The tall man said, “Who’d you think I was, mister?”

“Whoa,” Briggs said. “Let me in on this. Drinks for you three are on me. I just got to hear this.” He looked directly at Old Jack and said, “I saw you sit up when this fellow came in here.” He pointed to the man Old Jack called “Bernie.” “You looked at him like you knew him in a second. I saw that. Now, you gents just got to share this with me.’

“And with me,” said the tall man. “I don’t know who you thought I was. But my name’s Jack Foxx, and I’m a marshal out of Missouri and working a private matter.”

Old Jack said, “This is my nephew, Bernie Phillips. I’m his uncle on his mom’s side. My name’s Jack too.”

They all shook hands, including Briggs, who set up four glasses on the bar and said, “Who’s gonna begin? I’m listening.”

Phillips said, “It was when the war was already over and soldiers with and without weapons were just walking home and one of them turned into our place and killed my mother and two sisters and set the place on fire and one of the hands described the man as tall as any man he had ever seen with long arms and hands and fingers. Like you,” he said looking directly at Foxx. “Just like you, and a neighbor a dozen miles away said the same, and told how the man stole a hat and some ribbon, a whole roll of it with a yellow line running through it. That’s all we ever heard. Never a sign otherwise. Nothing. I been looking and working cows and moving all the time and I was just going to make sure it was or wasn’t you.”

Briggs said, “Just from the ribbon or the band on his hat? From 10 years ago?”

“And those fingers and hands of his,” Phillips added. “The hands did it for me.”

“Where did this all happen?” Foxx asked.

“Down in Missouri, in Dever Townsite.”

“Well,” Foxx said, “I’ve never been there, that’s for one thing, and I’ve been marshaling for over 10 years. I’m working on my own private matter for the last 6 months, chasing a guy that killed my daughter. I know he’s been in this town and will come back sometime.” He looked at Briggs and added, “I sure won’t appreciate it if this gets out, why I’m here. You understand?” His voice was cold, firm, promising. “I’m hanging around until it gets done.”

Briggs said, “Never a word from me. My promise. I won’t even ask who?”

“I wouldn’t tell you no how.” Foxx smiled as he spoke.

Briggs looked at Old Jack and said, “And you’ve been waiting 10 years to catch this other gent? Nothing else?”

“I have my music and the git-go box there.” Old Jack pointed at the piano and the fiddle sitting atop the piano. “I’ve made some wages at it. I don’t ride much at all any more from a bad fall in the army. Fact is I haven’t rode a horse since I been here, coming off a chuck wagon whose cook was kind to me.”

It was more than a week later, in the heavy-drinking part of the evening at the saloon, when another stranger appeared at the door, looked around, and walked in.

From his first steps inside, the stranger was eyed by several men in various parts of the saloon: by Old Jack quietly strumming away on his fiddle, not yet warmed up for the evening; by Marshal Foxx, sitting in on a poker game at one of the game tables off in the far corner of the saloon; by Bernie Phillips, at one end of the bar talking to his favorite server, Mary Grace Hadley, who had an edge on his heart; and by Briggs the bartender, hard at work, but who noticed a few things about the new patron.

He had quickly noted how tall the man was, almost as tall as Jack Foxx; that the man had fingers and hands and arms just like Foxx and someone else he had heard about; and the man wore a purple band on his old Stetson. There was a faint, worn strip of yellow in the purple band.

Briggs almost laughed aloud, wondering how the man would be accosted by the interested parties spread around the saloon.

When he looked around the room, all the interested parties were looking at him, Briggs, as though he was the conductor on a train, waiting to give a signal.

Briggs, in an attempt to forestall any rash incidents, simply shrugged his shoulders.

All of them understood the caution he exhibited.

It was Marshal Foxx, most experienced in such matters, who suddenly hailed Bernie Phillips at the other end of the bar, saying, “Hey, Bernie, you ever been to Wichita?”

Phillips, not understanding the question, just said truthfully, “Nope, never been there.”

“Hell, man, just the other night I heard that you said you’d been everyplace. And not Wichita?”

“No, not Wichita, but most other places.”

“Sagamore Hills, over in the territory?”

“No, not there.” He showed a kind of embarrassment on his face.

Foxx said, “I’ve been there, and Casa Verdi and Pimlico and Durban Hills and Chicago and Independence, Missouri, too. I’ve been everywhere, my good man.”

Old Jack, quick as a fox onto Foxx, spoke up from his seat at the piano. “Hell, Jack, I bet there’s fellas here who’ve been more places than you ever dreamed about visiting.”

Foxx and Briggs almost spoke in unison, and what came out was, “How would we ever judge such a thing? Make a game out of it? A contest?”

Old Jack, Johnny on the spot, said, “Let me handle it. I’ll make up a list of, well, say 10 or 12 places, and we’ll ask the players and those who want to play will have to tell the truth, and we’ll make sure the damned winner is telling the truth, ‘cause probably somebody in here has been in one of the 10 or 12 places I’ll name.”

“By God,” Briggs said, “that’s damned near perfect, jack. I can be a judge too, but what will we give the winner?”

Old Jack thought about it a while, nodded to himself like he was judging the outcome already, and said, “How about a free night at the bar for tonight and tomorrow night, compliments of all the other gents who try?”

There was a round of applause that was really started by Briggs and Old Jack banged on the fiddle and a dozen customers, eager for two nights on the house, volunteered to be contestants.

The new stranger, on his second drink, was one of them.

Briggs, a bit of excitement chasing through him, said, “Let’s make this a good contest. We’ll have to separate the contestants from the rest of the crowd. We’ll put them up here along the bar, and when you ask your question, Jack, naming a place, the contestants won’t yell out, but will simply raise their hands which will mean they’ve been in that place.”

“And?” said Old Jack from the piano, the fiddle still talking to his bow, setting music into the night.

“And,” Briggs said vociferously, the last man who holds up his hand is the winner of two free nights at the bar, my sworn promise.” He poured and drank a quick shot himself, and said, “I ain’t seen anything like this ever in my days as a barkeep.” He did a dance behind the bar, and the whole crowd could feel the excitement as it spread throughout the saloon.

Briggs said, “I’m ready anytime you are, Jack. Let’s have the first try for these boys. He pointed at the dozen men standing along the bar, the tall man one of them, a young cowpoke hardly wet behind the ears, another one. The rest were fortyish, sort of, and a few were real regulars in the saloon.

“Okay, here goes,” said Jack … “in the war.” His tone was dead serious, the war now a place in the mind of many men in the saloon at that moment.

Briggs laughed, Jack Foxx smiled from one ear to the next, and the young cowpoke, flustered at the first chance, left the bar and took a seat in the crowd. He shook his head the whole way. “I wasn’t old enough for that one.”

Briggs nodded at Old Jack.

Old Jack said, with a lilt to his voice and a strum of the bow on the strings, “Mesa Grande.”

Eleven men put up their hands.

“Winslow,” Jack said.

One of the regular customers walked away from the bar. He kept shaking his head, and was heard to say, “And my sister lives there too. She even invited me for a visit. I shoulda gone.” A round of laughter followed him to a seat at a table. He offered a half smile.

“Independence, Missouri, as well as being in this here town before this day.” It came like a double-barrel shotgun firing off both chambers.

Two men walked away to join the crowd, leaving 8 men at the bar, looking at each other, smiling.

Briggs wondered how Old Jack would handle it, as Jack said, in a loud voice and a strum on the fiddle that made the name sing, “Parsons, Kansas.”

Two more men walked into the crowd. Now six were left, still smiling at each other, wonder moving through the crowd and whispers saying, “Where the hell is Parson, Kansas? Where’d that come from? You really think Old Jack’s been there? Is that where he come from in the beginning?”

Briggs was smiling as he looked at Marshal Foxx who winked slyly at him, as if to say, “We’re in good hands.”

Old Jack moved the magic in the bow across the fiddle strings that seemed to say, “I’m getting closer to something here.”

“Osceola, Missouri.” Old Jack dropped an almost forgotten name out of his memory.

Disgust seemed to move along the bar in a small wave. Three men put up their hands and three men walked into the crowd, faceless, forgotten, each one wondering in what direction Osceola was from Flagstaff, or how long a ride it was.

The three remaining men spun around as Briggs poured a drink for each man and offered “so-far congratulations,” a huge smile on his face, a wink for Foxx and Old Jack and Phillips as the three remaining contestants downed the free drinks.

The tall man stood out at the bar, being a head taller than both the other contestants, like a peak looking down on the range.

“Hell,” said Old Jack, “I might as well stay in Missouri.” He strummed the fiddle again, jumped around in his seat, yelled out, “Cape Girardeau, Missouri.”

One man slapped his empty glass down on the bar and said, “It was worth it, but I sure wish I had been there.” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Not that I ever want to go there in the near future.” He got a few laughs for that and a sense of bon homie filtered through the crowd at first, but then it ran around the room a few times as it picked up speed, garnered excitement, made the contestants spin about as Briggs poured another free drink into their glasses.

Briggs said, “You guys are world travelers. A man can’t beat that no way to sundown. Congratulations so far again, Traveling Men, Men on the Go, Movers on the Face of the Globe.” He felt the excitement more than ever.

Old Jack, still at the piano seat, still with the fiddle and bow in his hands, said, “We got to get through this thing so someone here can celebrate, so we all can celebrate, so we won’t worry where we ain’t been in our small lives, our quick lives, our destinies on the move. If we’re not with it yet, it’s ahead of us.” He stopped, shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Or it’s behind us.”

With a single strum on the fiddle, he said, “Dever Townsite, Missouri.”

One contestant shook his head, like he had just lost his horse out on the trail.

The tall man, in the purple band and yellow stripe in it, raised his hand. Then, suddenly aware of what he had done, where he was, where he had been in the past, pulled his hand down quickly, and looked about nervously. Old Jack was walking toward him, strumming the fiddle like he was on stage.

Bernie Phillips, in seconds, was at the side of the tall man before he could move, saying loudly for all to hear, “Looks like you’re the winner, mister. Big time winner.”

“Oh, no” said the tall stranger, “I made a mistake. I ain’t never been in that little river town. Dever Townsite did you say? Nope, never been there.”

Phillips said, “How’d you know it was on a river? Sure you ain’t ever been there, killing a women and her two daughters?”

It didn’t sound like a question.

The tall man went for his gun and Briggs, directly behind him, smashed a bottle over his head.

“We got talking to do, mister,” Phillips said.

Marshal Foxx said, “You’ve been here before, haven’t you, here in Flagstaff? You said yes to that a while ago. I got questions of my own, and the answers are a long time in coming.”

Then he looked at Old Jack and said, “We’re near the end of the road, Old Man, but not the end of the music. Can you do ‘Mary, Mary, Caught in the Mow?’”

Old Jack leaned back and played the song as the Lost Coyote Saloon got set for a long evening full of questions and, hopefully, some answers.

The second place winner asked Briggs if he was the winner by default. “It’s at least a tie, ‘cause the big fella finally said he never was in Dever Township, just like I did.”

Briggs agreed, and poured the first drink.


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