Western Short Story
The Saloon Keeper's Shadow
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Nobody knew it, but the owner of the Left Horn Saloon in Elmton, Nevada, El-Jay, being his own barkeep, listened in on most all conversations, especially the deeply secret ones, supposedly, that lead to serious criminal activity on the part of some customers, talking through their suds, known informants to say the least.

And when he locked the saloon at the drop of midnight, of his own choosing, he’d slip out the rear door and into the night, each time on his horse black as night itself, to go where the overheard deed was to take place, doing what he was good at, stopping it in place, driving off the perpetrators, squashing their intentions of robbery or whatever else might happen as a result.

He was good at it, long-practiced, gun handy, quick thinker, but a peaceful man at heart. More than once, back at the bar on the same day, he’d hear about the night’s interruption, the death of a robbery, a kidnapping for money, a wild guess at what or who had disturbed the affair, from the mouths of the disturbers.

When he heard one man say, “I saw his boots, I know what they look like, can pick them out with one look, El-Jay was in the back room of the saloon taking off his boots, stuffing them out of sight, donning different shoes, hiding behind the difference, fully relaxed back at work behind the bar, nobody the wiser.

One night, when widower Marion Walkey heard a sound outside, ready to fire her rifle when brought to hand, a deep, husky voice said, “Ma’am, don’t intend to fire that rifle of yours or we’ll shoot you on sight, rob your place, then burn it down all around you.”

There was a pause, both sides as if speechless, when another voice, just above a whisper, said, “If you shoot the lady, boys, you get buried up to your jaws out there on the grass after you dig your own graves, for sure, after the animals or the birds make quick work of what’s left visible to them, all by your own making. Of course, you can ride off now after leaving the lady to herself for the time being and for all time after.”

There was a slight commotion as situations were thought of, measured at the instance, jumped in their saddles, and rode off.

El-Jay heard some parts of the night repeated after the sun had come back atop The Left Horn Saloon, come morning, almost to the last words, “Rest easy, Ma’am, they won’t come back.”

She told some folks that God had sent a messenger you could not see clearly in the night. “I haven’t seen him since, and I don’t expect to see him again.”

And a miner, working his claim in the foothills, reported to the Elmton sheriff, Guy Thorn, “Three armed men, arriving in the darkness, Guy, and threatened to kill me if I didn’t turn over all the gold I had found, when they were advised, from the darkness, that if they hurt a hair on my head or grabbed any of my gold, they’d be buried in a mine and the entrance blown up with a charge of dynamite they’d only remember for a week or so. That idea, that possibility, really scared the hell out of them that they started blabbering about ‘that same old voice we heard that other time when we had a line on the widow and all the goodies in her cabin, like a free-for-all was on our hands.’ “

Guy Thorn mentioned it to El-Jay in a passing remark, another crime he didn’t have to chase after, more time on his hands, more posters to study where he remembered the faces, and made him scan each and every newcomer in town, mold them in his memory.

The scenes seemed to repeat themselves, always a whisper out of the darkness, no known face, no horse to identify, no simple little clue hanging in their memories, like an arrow on its way to a target, straight and true, so straight and true it had to be a local man doing his bit on the world of crime, taking care of his neighbors, preventing crime and terrible possibilities right on local grounds, or not far from local grounds, near enough to get to in the darkness and get back into town before dawn slashed its way across the prairie, lit up most travelers on the move, a mystery man heading home from another good deed accomplished, a soul spared pain, agony or loss, sometimes so immeasurable it did not count, and sometimes loaded up for some awful type of ending in real pain, real agony, real loss.

Sheriff Thorn wondered where and how it would all end, for it would one day, or one night, come to an end, done for good as he might have put it, one way or the other. He kept pulling for the good guy, the mysterious night savior coming out ahead of the bad guys, those who picked on the old, the crippled, the women of the area, trying to whittle away whatever odds were against their plans, their thieveries, what might become sudden deaths that would rock Elmton to its roots.

At times, Sheriff Thorn would sit in his office and wonder how this strange savior of nights came to know what was coming around the bend, to a neighbor, someone at the moment sitting across the street in the saloon, hearing talk between some bad elements, all towns having their share of rats on the loose, who might say something out of cue or free talk thinking no one heard him, except may be the barkeep, El-Jay himself.

He sat bolt upright in his chair; the barkeep, the saloon owner, who ran his own place with an iron fist, who closed down when he wanted to, when he had to, if a bad turn for somebody was loose in the evening.

It seemed so logical to him, so logical that he made up his mind to watch him for a solid day and night, spot any reaction, see any clue, notice any loudmouths giving away a secret, a plan or sorts.

He got the alert early in the afternoon, saw El-Jay lean close to the bar once or twice while serving a drink on a quick delivery, turn away abruptly as though he did not want to be seen getting too close to a conversation, ‘butting in,’ if you’ll have it.

That night, at closing time, Guy Thorn had his eye on the back of the saloon, saw El-Jay slide out the back door of the saloon, go to his barn, ride out in the darkness, followed him to a small cabin in the foothills, watch as three men dismounted and approached the cabin, guns draw, when out of the darkness a whispery kind of voice said, “I wouldn’t plan on using those weapons, boys, or you’ll be mincemeat in a hurry,”

A second voice offered another warning, the voice also a cool whisper loaded with deadly promise and a soft charm, “I got my guns on the three of you, too. Can’t miss from here.”