Western Short Story
The Saloon Keeper's Runaway Son
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Jackie Mulrain was getting tired of it all, lugging kegs all the time for his father, who paid him no other mind, as if he didn’t count worth a nickel, nor did he know of Jackie’s dream of being one of those customers who seemed to parade into town, the tall-in-the-saddle cowboys, now and then a sheriff on a search, the sun catching and tossing reflections off their six guns on the belts, and the mahogany shine of rifle butts catching at the sun.

He dreamed of them often, clean through his 12th year, that’s when Toledo Wipstack, a miner working a local mine in the foothills, asked him one day, “You do any reading, son? I’m not nosey but just wondering. There’s nothing like a good book at the end of a day when you’ve worked your gut out for generally nothing much at all. I have a dozen or so of them in my wagon and I’ll keep them until the ink’s practically run its course and blows away.”

“Where’d you get ‘em?” Jackie said, his interest breaking loose for the first time with a customer, this bushy old man known as Toledo Wip, working a local mine down to its nothing, and saying, “You ought to get reading, son, before it leaves you in the dust. I’d be willing to teach you to read some of my beauties that come to me from a man I pulled out of his misery, but I’m pulling stakes here come Sunday morning and taking the road to Colorado where a pal’s working it out well. You could come with me, but have to do it on your own, like on Saturday night, in the shadows, leaving town on your own and catching up to me on the Colorado road. I’d be proud and joyed to teach you to read. There’s nothing like it, but I don’t need anybody chasing me down to find you.”

Twelve-year old Jackie Mulrain broke loose in the dark from the old ways in 1863, went to Colorado with Toledo Wip, learned to read before they got there, and closed on his dream before he was sixteen.

By that time, he was protector, guardian, watchdog, investigator, Chief look-about, and gunman and marksman to an extreme, for the man who taught him to read and who hit it bigtime at the new site. And Jackie had his own little library of books that he cherished time and time agin, even to the point that he was able, for his own pleasure, to memorize and recite small passages that made him feel good when he spoke the words to a lonely campfire, the inside of a rickety barn with no one about, or on an otherwise long and lonely ride to complete a task, keep a promise, wonder what some author was really saying in between the words.

He stumbled at times with, Charles Dickens, Lord Tennison or Les Miserable, but came out of each quandary with a clearer head, a smile on his face, a pleasant attitude circling his being, worth every minute of his time, The most difficult time was his need to hold back when he wanted to use someone else’s words to carry a response, yet a request from a campfire riding partner, day done, ease apparent, to read aloud “one of those books of yours,” when the group was split by differences, yet which found solace in some drama or some character’s holy words at dictate.

Fire and agony and peril led the parade, stories unfolding as he read to listeners, they’re trying to grasp everything coming at them like it was a new colt to be taught a lesson on who was riding who.

When he walked into the Tri-Horn Saloon in Partners’ Well, Colorado, at the touch of dusk, the room full of cowboys and local drinkers, one of the no-one’s-as-tough-as-me yokels, Rip Collins,

let loose another of his hair-curling remarks made to order to laugh at someone or point out their obvious difference to other folks, as it came straight at Jackie, “Well, if it isn’t the gent who has to use what someone else said to get him not through a whole conversation but just into the introductory remarks, which says ‘Dumb numb tongue’ to me, even as he stands before us like he’s been banished to silence.”

Jackie replied, “Hush, child,” and the room went cold; nobody ever spoke to the Ripper like that. Never, or guns were drawn.

So, it was proposed in quick hate; “You want to draw on me, pal, do it first, or I’ll knock you into the next century for good.”

Jackie was ready, tongue or gunhand made no difference this time, but he found himself saying, “Draw, bigmouth, and I’ll put a bullet in each ass cheek from the front to back.”

He had moved away from the bar, to stand facing the Ripper a mere 20 feet away, the pallor on his face suddenly gone sheet-white, his hands usually at the ready arc, stiff as boards, no more the challenger unchallenged.

It was an unveiling, what the Ripper had to say in front of the same people who had cowed down before him for a number of years, and in the very same saloon, “I’m damned sorry, kid, but I ain’t ever read a single book in my whole life, being jealous as all Hell, and I swear to God that’s the truth.”

He was not in any way ready for gunplay, it came evident to every man in the joint, some of them with short memories, and some of them with memories as long as the arm of the tallest man in that room.

And knowing the stories both ways on both men, they all knew Jackie Mulrain, who was taught to read by the old miner, Toledo Wip, had himself a new student to find the true word about the King’s English, all the way from A to Z.