The saloon man, old Joe Wiggins, nodded with a half-smile as he poured John Smolly a shot of whiskey. It was the first drink of the night for John, and he had savored the thought of it all day. As he now held the tempting brown liquid up in the dim gold sheen of the poorly lit Bull Horn Saloon, he acknowledged his old partner, Manning Jones, at the far end of the bar.
Just then as be began to raise the glass to his lips, a shot rang out. Confused, John lowered his shot glass gently onto the bar and turned slightly to his right. It was only then that he realized he had been shot as a rush of blood swelled up from his chest as he stood there in disbelief.
“That’s for you callin’ on my gal!” the glassy-eyed Gip Ruff spewed as he held the smoking gun and clicked the hammer back for a second shot. Then several of the boys at the bar converged on Ruff, bringing him awkwardly to the sticky hardwood floor.
“John!?” Manning Jones shouted as he pushed his way through the crowd and touched John just as he fell. But it was too late. Blood bubbled from John’s lips as he tried to speak. Eyes wide, like a carp gasping out of water, John managed to say, “I guess I didn’t finish my drink….” Then he was gone.
By then the town marshal and a deputy had arrived and was hauling the flailing Gip Rush off. Manning and several other of John’s friends stared at the unmoving thing on the floor that had been their friend. Mutely, as they bore John Smolly’s body away, Manning pulled twenty dollars from his vest and told the undertaker to bury him with it. He and five other of John’s friends followed as they took the body away.
When Manning and John’s other friends came back to the Bull Horn a few minutes later, the saloon was as quiet as the funeral parlor they had just left. The full shot glass and the bottle Smolly had purchased were where they had carefully been left. Joe Wiggins had not had the heart to remove them. Stoically, the men gathered around the spot where John had fallen and began drinking.
When at last the bartender started to remove the bottle and glass, Manning whispered loudly, “Leave ‘em there!” as his wild eyes met those of the saloon keeper. He did.
As the long night wore on, the men continued drinking and talking about John as if he were still there. John Smolly had been a regular customer of the Bull Horn. There was not a man among them that could or would say a bad word about him.
“It ain’t right!” Manning, more that half drunk, suddenly exclaimed at 2 o’clock in the morning. Manning and John’s friends continued to stare at the shot glass and the whiskey that John had not drank. “It’s a damn shame it is!”
The night wore on. At every attempt to close the bar or remove the glass and bottle, Manning and his five friends snarled and pulled out their guns. Finally, giving up, weary old Joe Wiggins decided to make the best of it and keep the bar open all night.
The next morning, the bleary-eye saloon owner gazed sadly out upon the drunken men scattered across the floor and draped crazily across chairs and tables, and just shook his head and sighed. The last drink of John Smolly remained untouched on the bar as the light of morning drifted lazily through the swing door.
Slowly, like half-dead carrion, the drunken friends of John Smolly awoke and barked for drinks. The barkeep, once again, just shook his hairless head and broke out the whiskey.
“Don’t you boys need some breakfast?” old Joe offered cautiously. “Miss Dell’s restaurant is just across the street should be open by now….”
Manning Jones clawed himself up to the bar, his whiskered pale face rising above it as he slapped the palm of his hand on the bar. “Another whiskey!” His friends followed suit.
The day wore into afternoon and still they drank. Finally, about mid-afternoon, they could hardly stand but somehow made the effort and began wandering off to home or yet another bar. Manning, the last to go, stared dumbly at the shot glass and bottle on the counter, pulled out his .44 and waved it in Joe Wiggin’s waxen face. “Don’t…” he stammered, “don’t you or nobody else dare touch that glass or bottle till we get back!” To make his point clear, the drunken man shot a round off just above Joe’s bald head.
“Yes! Yes sir!” Joe yelped like a kicked dog. Then Manning was gone.
They had John Smolly’s funeral late that afternoon. It was a quick, cheap affair in the potter’s field next to the town boot hill. John’s parents had died years before, and he had no other kin that anyone knew about. Only three people showed up for his funeral: the marshal, the undertaker and the grave digger. Manning Jones and John’s other Bull Horn friends were too drunk to attend.
The next morning though, when Manning and John’s friends had slept it off, they were once again in full attendance at the Bull Horn Saloon. As instructed, old Joe Wiggins, the bar owner had left the full shot glass and whiskey bottle on the bar just as John Smolly had left them. In fact, the red-eyed bar man had even barricaded the sacred spot with spittoons and empty liquor bottles so no unsuspecting patron would consecrate it.
Thus, Manning began drinking and telling stories about John in earnest once again as his friends joined in. Again, the day wore on and they became drunker and drunker.
“It ain’t right! I just ain’t right!” Manning bellowed again and again as he his barroom congregation downed drink after drink. “He never had a chance to drink his last drink before that scum Ruff killed him!” And so, the gospel went on and the memories and might-have-beens of the life of John Smolly continued.
By mid-afternoon Manning and his apostles were drunker than any proverbial skunk or any lesser or greater animal. Suddenly, as if struck by lightning or the holy wisdom of the gods, Manning seemed to awake from his drunken stupor as he stuck his skeletal finger in the air in revelation.
“By gum, John’s gonna have his last drink yet!” Manning proclaimed as he snatched up the shot glass and bottle. “Follow me boys!” Thus, began the drunken procession out of the Bull Horn Saloon and out into the street as they clumsily untied their horses from the hitch rail and crookedly pulled themselves up into their saddles.
Manning, with John’s whiskey bottle under his arm, had spilled half the contents of the shot glass when boarding his dun mare, and so had drained the remaining drops before slipping it inside his vest as righted himself upon his saddle.
“Off to boot hill!” one of his fellow riders screamed as the swaying parade progressed slowly out of town.
“He’s in potter’s field!” an exasperated but relieved Joe Wiggins shouted after them from the pulpit of the saloon’s swinging doors.
“To potter’s field!” Manning yelled in glee as he took up the crusade while trying not to fall from the grace of his horse’s back. Then, somehow, they were gone.
“Drunk fools!” Joe muttered as he went back into the Bull Horn.
Somehow the drunken entourage arrived at the potter’s field without any one falling from their horse or accidentally shooting a brethren soul.
Seeing the freshly dug grave and eyeing the hastily painted name of John Smolly R.I.P on the flat barren wood plank at its head, the drunks momentarily sobered for the moment as they descended from their horses. Ceremoniously, Manning Jones held up John Smolly’s bottle of whiskey and the now empty shot glass.
“We brought you your last drink!” he blubbered to the sky. As the six friends of John stood there, a realization of sorts came to them. “We forgot to bring any shovels!” Manning cried in frustration.
Not to be deterred or awoken to their senses, the drunken choir seized John’s marker from his grave and several of the head boards from surrounding graves and began digging.
As the sun began to set, the men finally came upon John Smolly’s crude pine coffin and began prying open its lid.
“Damn if he don’t look natural… and thirsty…!” Manning Jones said quietly as something like tears appeared in the crinkled corners of his blood-shot eyes.
Carefully, and lovingly, the men placed the shot glass in John’s dead hand, poured some whiskey in it, and then rested the bottle in the nook of his arm. Then, just as carefully (at least as slobbering drunks can be), they replaced the lid of the pine box, hammered it shut with the butts of their guns and began the long process of throwing dirt back into the yawning grave.
When at last the grave was returned to its former self, Manning and his friends paused above it and tried to remember a few words from the good book. Failing this, one of them recalled a bawdy song one of the girls often sung at the Bull Horn that John had enjoyed. Thus, they departed as night came on.
As Manning and the few other friends that John had boasted rode away into the night, the now sober men looked up at the full pallid moon knowing that they had done the right thing.