Western Short Story
At the Gila City Saloon that very night, hard-working, long-time rancher in the region Everett Jensen entered to laughter and glee and was hailed not as a new hero of the still wild west but as the wily old man he was.
“Hey, Everett, you old man of the west, how’d you figure on all that stuff today?” said one man at the bar, nodding his head in a salute and, with a broad grin on his face, offering up a glass of whiskey.
Jensen sipped the offered drink. “Well, Harry, you don’t hang around out here for 50 years and not learn something. If it looks like you’re not learning anything, better move on to someplace else. And you better not take 50 years to learn that much because you won’t last that long in the first place.” Jensen showed his run at age with his gray hair that twirled over his ears, the long years of saddle-riding and sun-beating on his face, and a slight infirmity just now touching his left knee, a long-ago throw from horseback. But his blue eyes had not lost a second of clarity, or any power of observation.
“That’s nice to hear, Everett, but somethin’ has to get in your craw, like it did today, and you gotta know it when it sets in like that, know it for real. How is what I want to know? Does it sit up and growl at you, or simper inward like a pup is whinin’?”
“The way it comes to me, it’s the lay of the land, Harry, and the people around you. I saw them pokes just lying there on my way into the bank like there was no reason in the world to take a break so early in the morning. Nothing like the folk I know. None of you gents lays around like that. Not on Friday and Saturday around the corner. You don’t have to poke at that from too many angles to get an idea in your head. So, it’s like the old coyote or the old wolf of the pack is still learning, and he makes something of something new, or best yield his place in the pack. These gents weren’t doing any whittling. They weren’t doing any talking. They were just watching, and I figured it was me they were watching, so I just tried an old trick. It’s been done before and will be done again, you can bet supper on that. But it worked for me, least until the boys from the Double Ell roped them in. I’d seen them on the way home from town, off in the grass, hassling their cows home.
“You see everythin’, Everett, everythin’ around you? That way you can’t see where yore ridin’, can you?”
“You know what it’s like, Harry. You’ve been here a spell too. All you boys have. The thing is I know I can count on all of you. And that’s a big difference no matter where or when you’re trying to fit in, make a place for yourself.” And even as Jensen said it he went back again to the one man in the saloon he had never seen before. In a gray hat, gray vest, long narrow face, pointed chin, drinking his second glass since Jensen had come into the room, and not a smile on his face. Not part of the crowd. Not an old townie . He put the man’s face in a secure place in his mind. One never can tell, he thought, even as the whiskey felt clear and gunshot clean in his own mouth, a slight burn down his throat, evening pleasure after a day in the saddle.
He thought about something his father had said, more than 50 years before when they came into the valley on the back end of a wagon, their whole lives piled up in the wagon, and Everett’s long, thin, nine-year old legs hanging off the back end like scrawny twigs gathered up in the ride. “Hear me, son, out here it’s best to bite the rattler ‘fore he bites you.”
And there in the corner of his mind, where he lodged and kept important ideas, the words came back to him, in that Tennessee drawl that somehow hung on for the ages, for the long ride: “Hear me, son, out here it’s best to bite the rattler ‘fore he bites you.”
There was no better time and no better reason than to do so this very moment; another part of his mind told him so, even as he went back over the start of this very day, just hours back, as he rode homeward from Gila City.
A strange rider, guns drawn and aimed at him, had come up out of a gulley and faced Everett Jensen. For all his wariness and suspicious circumstances seen over his years, Jensen had been keeping an eye on the trail behind him as he came from Gila City … and a visit to the bank.
“Horse,” he muttered, half disgustedly at his lack of full awareness, “we just got us some mean-looking company. I should have known it. Thought he’d be coming the other way. Could have bet on it.”
Earlier in the morning Jensen had mused on a number of things: it was a warm July morning in 1879, and an early touch of air gave its outlook on the day … the sun would be hot but the breeze would carry a shred of soothing, to be most realized only in evening’s balm and delight, after moving a small herd, seeing the branding done, coping with innumerable tasks that made up his life as the owner of a large spread in East Texas. And the streets of Gila City were not yet busy. He had walked out of the Gila City Bank with payroll money for his ranch hands, almost 50 years working the ranch, J Barbrand, and had seen too many incidents not to be aware every minute he carried a goodly sum of money.
That’s why he casually noticed for the second time two horses at the rail in front of the general store, and two men, obviously their riders, still sitting on the steps as they had when he entered the bank. It was too early in the day for good men to idle on a busy Friday. He stressed his immediate assessment by saying again to himself, “Too early for idling.” He made a show of packing a large envelope in his saddle bag, his usual embrace of funds after a bank visit. In the bank some alertness had leaped at him and he had slipped his payroll money inside his Stetson.
Twenty years back in his history, two other men had come out of the trees, at about the halfway point in the ride home, with their guns drawn. That time he was also on the way back to the ranch with wage money after a stop at the bank. The times were a bit notorious and he rode with full alert, including carrying a pistol right on the pommel of his saddle. Both men were surprised when he fired at them, and they fled back into the trees. He did not chase them, but knew he could pick them out of a crowd. Never again did he see them. The story, though, hung on a long time and he couldn’t believe how many times it had been told in the Gila City saloons, and elsewhere most likely.
“Hey, Everett,” one bar leaner might say, “Tell us again how you pommel-whipped them poor dumb asses with yore quick-draw from the top of the deck.” And he might add, “C’mon, Everett, one more time so’s we kin make a legend out of it.”
The story might have brought these two newer but still suspicious gents out of the ravine and deep grass that ran right through his fence lines for another mile or so. Neither one of the men had he seen before, and kept his eye on the trail behind him as he rode home. He never saw the third man step from behind a tree with a rifle leveled at his midsection.
“That’s one on me,” he said, half a joke in his voice, as the rifle slowly moved closer to him. His hands went in the air and the idlers from back in town came right up out of the same ravine, their weapons drawn.
“Get the envelope out of the saddlebag and run off his horse,” one of the idlers said.
One tough looking gent, much too heavy in the paunch for a decent day’s work on the J Bar, and an odd sense of movement about him as if something was out of joint, climbed down off the saddle and took the envelope from Jensen’s saddlebag and stuck it in his own saddlebag. Jensen’s horse, smacked hard on the rump, fled across the wide grass.
Jensen put a thought away for future reference: “This gent is the low man on the totem pole in the group because he’s uncomfortable yet he’s made to climb down from his horse.” Later, he would recall saying “Climbed down.” It stuck in Jensen’s mind. “I’ll call him ‘Ache,'” he added, in further classification on which to draw a reference.
“Ache” snugged the saddle bag on his own horse and climbed back up in the saddle with definite signs of full discomfort and the three robbers galloped off.
Jensen realized he might not have much time, so he put his money into an old post hole and stuffed dry grass on down on top and moved off, marking the place indelibly in his mind and began whistling for his horse. As bidden, the horse poked its head up out of a gulley and trotted back. Jensen mounted and fled back toward town as the three bandits, obviously checking on their spoils and knowing they had been played for fools, began their chase.
The old man of the west, Everett Jensen, born to the saddle, expert horseman and rider, having exclusive picks for his own horses, let the big red horse have his wings. Able now to wave his hat, he drove the animal as great speed back down the trail, where his hat-waving and yells alerted other horsemen off the trail. They responded quickly, recognizing a neighbor in trouble. They converged on the trio of bandits, and without a shot fired rounded them into a small herd of distraught and down-faced robbers who had been done in by the old man.
“Take them into the sheriff. Tell him I’ll be back tonight. I have to pay off my boys. Some of them will be coming back into town with me tonight.”
“Where you going now?” one neighbor asked.
“Back to dig up my money. I buried it back there under some dry grass and have to get it back before some critter moves off with it. These pokes just ran off with an empty money envelope.”
The neighbor laughed loudly and slapped his thigh in glee. “Hey, Everett, they shoulda known not to fool around with the old man of the west. He’s too smart for all of ‘em. We kin start some new stories in the saloon starting right off tonight and these three dudes goin’ smack into the new legend. Yessiree, tonight will be a hot time at the old saloon, and these boys’ll be looked at like the fools they been, chasin’ for nothin’ at all. We might have us a parade and march past the jail ahooterin’ and ahollerin’ to beat the band for those dumb ass pokes who shoulda knowed better than play the old man for a fool.” He laughed again and added, “I’ll betcha old Dublin Mickey on the piana will make up a new song for ‘em, like chasin’ air or nothin’ in an empty envelope, or three dopes headin’ for ropes. Hey, Everett, maybe that ain’t too bad if I do say so myself.” He laughed loudly again in his own glee, and then asked, “How in hell did you know they was comin’ after you, Everett?”
“I’ll tell you tonight,” Jensen said, who rode back on the trail, found his money and headed back to the ranch as the trio of unsuccessful robbers were herded back to the sheriff and their time in jail, notwithstanding the “three dopes headin’ for ropes” still sounding on the neighbor’s tongue.
His rode back to the ranch, made the pay-off , and finished supper. He set off for the return ride to town with a few hands that had remained behind, knowing he was going back into town amid a new cause for partying and celebration; any kind of survival in a tough situation in a tough world indeed called for celebration. It was ordinary folks becoming heroes for a short time; it was due respect for wits and wiles. Yet there was no doubt it was the stuff of legends.
No man at the time had a bigger piece of that respect than Everett Jensen.
Now, he was here, leaning at the bar, the stories popping around as usual when something fortunate happened to any one of his many good friends, and the new, strange face in the crowd still looking at him. It was not a sinister face, but it had some edges to it, Jensen decided, edges to which he ought to pay note.
So he turned again to his long-time pal Harry Cruthers and said, “It’s always been a rule with me, Harry to be ready for the difference-makers when they come around you, or people you don’t recognize.” He was looking directly at the stranger as he said that, but shifted his eyes away in a hurry. “I know every man in this room, some of you going back almost the 50 years I’ve been here. Most of you for 10-12 years or more anyway, and I know I can count on you; what you do, what you might do, and, most important, what you won’t do. That’s plain and simple to all of us. That’s every man in this whole room but one. There’s one stranger here I never met, never had the pleasure, so I’d like to buy this stranger a drink if he would come up here and establish a friendship,” and he might have added, “Bite the rattler afore he bites you.” He nodded at the stranger, who rose from his seat and came to the bar.
“This one’s on me,” Jensen said. Welcome to Gila City. What brings you here?”
“Just riding through, looking for work in a week or so, but perhaps farther west, at the foot of the mountains. Name’s Jode Prescott and nothing special about me. But I appreciate the drink.” His eyes did not play tricks on old Jensen, who thought for the second or third time about “biting the rattler ‘fore he bit him.”
“Well,” said Harry Cruthers, “that’s one hombre won’t sneak up on you, Everett, not without wearin’ a mask no how.”
The stranger, Jode Prescott, said, “Thanks for the drink. I’m turning in now for an early start. Nice to meet all you considerate folks.” He doffed his hat and left. The door swung squeakily behind him to a close.
Another patron said, “Hey, Everett, tell us again about that lady situation you run into, at that bank in Mesquite.”
In the basking light that he ordinarily didn’t seek, Jensen realized it was like a special night out for his long-time pals, and some of his own ranch hands, and an enjoyable scene they had all been through before. Nothing more pleased him than being with good friends and having a good time. It was as good as a payday. So he began a new episode.
“I saw this guy in the bank at Mesquite eyeing a lady’s folding money as she put it in her little satchel that she carries on her arm. If there was smoke for interest he would have been on fire and shooting off a cloud. I locked his face in place for future reference. Got his name through an encounter with an Oklahoma lawman. I come home and about a week later heard the lady was robbed on the way back to her ranch. So I let the lawman know my suspicions and about a month later, when he was corralled, the lady positively identified him as the robber. Said he knocked her off her seat in her buggy after she found him lying beside the road and stopped to check him out. Not like a real robber, that dude”
“Just the look on his face tipped you? Hell, we all have that when we go lookin’ at a roll of bills or a sack of gold dust. Nothin’ else to him? No stick-out stuff loose on him? My gawd, Everett, it’s like you kin look right through a body and find what makes him move.”
And the legend, as it swirled on itself, gathered momentum with additional episodes as Everett Jensen, on his way home in the morning after a night with pals, his spirits as high as the sun bright and laying hands on everything in sight, saw a small reflection of sunlight off the side of the road ahead of him. He dipped his horse down into a gulley, tethered him, grabbed his rifle and backtracked through high grass and brush and climbed a small hillock.
He waited out any movement and after 20 minutes, saw a rider slowly come off the side of the road, from behind a large rock. It was the stranger passing through town from the night before, Jode Prescott. The legend of the old man of the west gathered a new episode when Jensen put a round right over Prescott’s head and forced him to dismount. He made him walk all the way back to town, and told the sheriff, “This hombre was about to bushwhack me on the road back to the ranch. Now I can’t prove it, but he’s got a lot of explaining to do about why he was flashing his rifle from the side of the road, and sort of well-hidden. If I didn’t catch the reflection of his rifle, he could have dropped me. Nobody out here wants anybody sitting on the side of the road, hidden, with a rifle in his hands. There is no reason for doing so, so some steps have to be taken in this case. I don’t want to spend my time looking for this gent as I come and go.”
The sheriff told Prescott, that very evening as he let him out of jail, “I’ll say it once, and no more … you git ridin’ and ride fast and far and if you ever come within a hundred miles of here I’ll drop you myself.”
Prescott was never seen again, the legend, of course, grew some more, and Everett Jensen, hardly done compiling the full complement of his history as the old man of the west, plain fell asleep one night in his 87th year and closed the book on it all.