Western Short Story
It sits at the fork of a river in Texas, The 2nd Dead Horse Saloon, and at a fork in the road. Water and wherever go two ways at once whenever you get here and look around. The name of the town is Bapst and there’s nobody who knows where that name came from, at least not living here now.
But the owners of the saloon in Bapst are two solid-looking men, Stocker Breslin and Stuart Holmes, one an easterner who went west and the other, a northerner who went south. They met in an unfair gunfight on the trail, each immediately from two directions sticking up for an out-manned and out-gunned lone target they observed under heavy gunfire and pinned into his last retreat.
They made the difference from their cover, driving two thugs off the road, leaving two others as dead as one of Breslin’s mackerels or one of Holmes’ shooting-back-at-a-Mountie fugitives. In both cases, both goners. They had a good look at the bushwhackers, who had not seen either one of them, Breslin or Holmes, the saviors of the moment and hidden from full sight.
The rescued man, though sorely and vitally wounded, and bleeding so as to say no saving would rear its hope, was Joshua Nettles, who asked for “a pencil quick” to write a note. Luckily, Holmes had a 2-inch stub of a pencil in the band of his hat. The note, as it turned out, was Nettle’s last word on worldly matters and gave his rescuers half each of a saloon he had won in a card game, but advised that he was set upon by cohorts of the former owner who lost his ownership when he put down the deed as collateral in a big pot. Nettle’s quick note was added to the deed.
“It’s called The Dead Horse Saloon. It’s in Bapst, down the trail a ways in west Texas, where I was just heading to after looking for my daughter in a few towns out this way, but all that’s on this paper.”
He coughed one more tell-tale cough both men recognized, each of them having been in enough battles to know the sound of death, the sneak coming up on a man even if he was looking right at it.
“You best do me honor, gents, and if my daughter ever shows up to claim what I should give her, you do the right thing. It has to be this way ‘cause I can’t let it fall back into the hands of Smoky Woods who just had his men try to take it back from me but you gents took care of that … and her, if she shows up at your door someday. I ain’t seen her in a many months ‘cause she moves around a lot. Her name’s Evelyn but I called her Evie, and she called me Poppa Two ‘cause I was her step-father and I love her better than my horse.”
He signed the paper, rolled his eyes, said “Evie” like there was a whole bunch of EEs rolled right up front of her name, and made it sound awful sad, like the last thing known by a man who died almost alone in the world.
Breslin and Holmes, by agreement, came into Bapst from different directions and different times, and ended up a few days later as new acquaintances at the bar, Breslin as a come-lately easterner called by the adventures in the west, and Holmes as a lone Montana man looking for new opportunities.
They ended up in the same card game with Smoky Woods, supposed owner of the Dead Horse Saloon.
Talk, also as planned, turned to the saloon, Holmes asking if the saloon business was profitable, and was the place for sale.
Smoky Woods, dealing the hand, said, “Could be it’s for sale at the right price.” He was a wide-faced man, thick in the neck and brows, leaning all the way into too-heavy in places, let two big rings weigh down his right hand as he dealt the cards, and smiled too often when he was not supposed to smile, like a cougar about to leap from a branch over a rider’s head or a high rock alongside the trail. The green in his eyes was sharp as grass just getting a start.
Holmes had seen the type before and discarded the smiles, and the hands seemingly too swift for any normal eyesight, but not the two men sitting as if on command at the next table, their legs free, their hips free, their side arms free and out in the open, the way an easy draw is allowed. They had been sitting like that for days on end, the assignment easy enough to see by people with discerning eyes, like Holmes and Breslin, who fortunately had recognized them from the bushwhacking scene on the trail.
Holmes knew where trouble sat and shifted his eyes so Breslin could note where their interest rested, on the pair of gunmen in place like they had been set there. So Holmes said, “If the price is right and the deed is clear and the bank ain’t finding any fault with the paperwork, I’d make an offer for my company to buy it, ‘cause we’re on the look-out for a foothold down this way, a nice clean start of a new dynasty.” His laugh rang around the room, “Course, those gents back there in the company swinging with the money think everything’s easy as busting a sick bronc out here, but it ain’t. We all know that. Opportunity comes to those who can see it coming down the trail like a runaway wagon.”
“With the banker Holdsworth,” Woods said, “it always ain’t the paper that’s the issue, but the word of a good man. Paper stuff don’t go too far out here where a man’s word is mostly the law among folks of standin’. Holdsworth will do the same if we sell, but you got to come up with a good figure. I’d sell in a flash ‘cause I want to go home to the Panhandle for a spell. I ain’t been back there in a dozen years and my folks is gettin’ on.”
Holmes slipped in a few words as he studied his cards. “I’ll contact the top dogs and see what they’ll give, then we can play around with the figures, with reason of course, and settle it ourselves.” He laid down his full house, knowing he had seen the trey of spades before, in the same deal. To himself he admitted, “They are slick as I thought they’d be, even with the cards.” He bought his way out of the game with two good losses, even tossing in a pair of aces one time, and said goodnight.
Before the bank opened in the morning, as soon as he saw Holdsworth coming down the street, Holmes met him at the door as he opened it for business. “I have a chance to buy the Dead Horse Saloon, Mr. Holdsworth, and I just want to make sure the paper or the deed is in good fettle for a sale. My company may ask me to get everything in proper order.”
“Certainly,” Holdsworth said, “it’s just business of the day. Now what questions do you have? But if I may volunteer a few facts, it will make everything flow in good order.”
His smile was sincere, asking for acceptance the minute it broke wide on his face. “As you must know, out here without lawyers hanging their shingles all over, a man’s word is his good bond. That’s the situation with The Dead Horse Saloon. It was a man’s word and a handshake between Mr. Woods and the former owner, Joshua Nettles, and I was a witness to the sale. It happened only a few months ago. We could do the same thing or I could arrange a deed to be drawn up if the asking price is fair.”
Holmes said, “That’s real interesting, Mr. Holdsworth. My bosses would probably offer as much as ten thousand for the saloon and the property as it is. I bought a couple of places in East Texas for them not too long ago. They have ideas of a whole bunch of places springing up all over. Kind of dreamy if you ask me, but I only work for them. Would the ten thousand dollar offer interest Mr. Woods?”
“Oh, I am sure it would. How long would it take for you to get the word from your bosses?”
“I’m guessing two or three days, sir. They’d probably send a man with the money. They like to do things that way. It makes things cleaner with cash, don’t you agree?”
“That’s fine. I’ll make the arrangements,” the banker said. He stood up and shook hands.
As Holmes was about to leave, he turned to Holdsworth and said, “Just in case Woods is interested, I can make the price a little higher if he might find a way to split the difference with me, if you know what I mean?”
Holdsworth let go with his biggest smile. “I’m sure that would be fine, even at this end with me, if we could make the right arrangements between ourselves, if you understand my position.” His smile was right out of a We’re-so-much-alike dictionary.
Both men smiled widely, nodded at each other, shook hands again like they had never shook hands before and Holmes walked out whistling a tune he had not whistled in a long while.
Holmes made his way later in the day to the telegrapher and sent off an apparently innocent message, and Breslin kept watch on the telegrapher just in case the banker or Woods made any attempt to find out the contents of the message.
Three days later, a few strangers in town or passing through like normal traffic in a small town, Holmes told a teller at the bank that he’d be back after lunch with his company’s agent to take care of the business at hand.
From a position at the livery, Holmes and Breslin and “the company agent” watched at noontime as the banker walked off to the saloon and came out twenty minutes later with Woods and the two hired hands recognized as killers of Joshua Nettles.
Holdsworth and Woods entered the bank and the two thugs took up positions outside the bank, each of them at rest and not very cautious. They were flabbergasted when two guns were stuck in their backs and they were ordered down an alley, locked in irons, and taken to the town jail. Neither of them said a word, the hired guns taken with such ease.
Holmes and the company agent stepped into Holdsworth’s office a little later and Holmes introduced the agent. “This is the agent I spoke about. His name’s Price,” which put a big smile on the banker’s face as well as on Holmes’s, “and he will speak for me and the company.”
Price appeared as a real steady looking man, with Colts comfortable on his belt, a gray Stetson sitting straight as an arrow on his head, a soft gray vest without a single wrinkle in it, but no smile on his face, and business looming about him like he could buy and sell half the west.
He said, “I’ve been told that we could possibly do business by handshake as might have been done before with witnesses. If you’d call in a teller or a customer that might be in the bank now, we could get on with this business.”
The banker, stepping out of his office saw Breslin in the bank and said, “Sir, would you please step in here and be a witness to some quick business the bank has to close today. I would appreciate it.”
“Sure, can,” Breslin said, “be my damned pleasure gettin’ a view of big business in operation.” He laughed an uproarious laugh that bounced off the windows of the bank, and stepped into the office as Holdsworth held the door for him.
Holdsworth said to all those gathered, “We have a witness here and we can do the handshake and get on with business.”
Price, standing beside the banker’s desk said, his voice full of business with the question of the moment, “Then we are going to do this by handshake with witnesses and with no deed, because one does not exist at the present time?”
“Yes. Sir, that is right. It was a prior handshake with a Mr. Nettles that took care of ownership and we are prepared to do so at this time.”
“Then,” said Price, with great surprise supposedly riding across his face, “please tell me what this is.” Onto the desk he tossed the deed signed over by Nettles to Holmes and Breslin.
The banker almost fainted. Woods went for his gun and was almost to it when Price stuck a gun in his ribs and said, “It’d be my pleasure, Mr. Woods, to provide a response to you, but I’ll wait for the law to take care of it.”
Woods, knowing it was about to come apart, if it hadn’t already, yelled, “Briscoe, Dexter,” as loud as he could.
Holmes, as cool as he ever felt, said to Woods, “Them two killers ain’t about to come in here to your rescue, Smoky. They’re sitting in jail and shooting off their mouths about now how you hired hem to kill Joshua Nettles and try to steal the deed from him that you lost in a card game over in Coster City. He was killed out there on the trail. Me and my pal here are witnesses and we killed two of your bushwhackers and drove you and your pals off and Nettles signed ownership of The Dead Horse Saloon over to us. And Mr. Price here, believe me or not, is the marshal from the territorial office.”
Holdsworth, seeing his part in it bigger than it really was, fear leaping around in him like a sick coyote, went for a gun in his desk draw. Price fired one round into the drawer and shattered chunks of it into the banker’s lap. The banker collapsed onto his desk, his forehead hitting the desktop with a loud bang, like it was an echo from Price’s gunshot.
Holmes, shortly having repainted the sign out front to read “The 2nd Dead Horse Saloon,” went on thinking about buying a few more saloons he had thought about earlier, like The 3rd and The 4th and The 5th. Breslin, meanwhile, kept imagining that one day a beautiful blonde, about 24, curvy and luscious and blue-eyed like an angel, would come in the saloon door and walk right up to him and say, “My name is Evie and I’ve heard some real nice things about you.”