Western Short Story
The Toothache
Alfred Stifsim

Western Short Story

Texas, 1884

George Seitz raised both eyebrows as Hart Barringer walked through the double doors of the Ruby Red Saloon. Broad shoulders fixed forward as he took powerful strides, gun belt hanging from his waist, a yellowish-purple bruise was visible on Hart’s jaw just below his lip.

“Jorge Ramos wants to fight you.” George said to him. His voice was tense, concerned.

“Does he?” Hart asked, there was little hint of worry in his tone. Pulling a stool out, he sat down at George’s bar. “Did he say why?”

“Nope,” George replied using one of his burly arms to wipe off the spot in front of Hart with a bar towel before setting down a fresh mug of beer; foam dripping down the sides. George was a graying, fatherly looking figure who always expressed concern for his regular customers’ wellbeing.

“Puta madre. Jorge always got a barrote up his ass. Don’t pay him any mind,” Roman Sanchez said stroking his long black mustache at the end of the bar. A full shot glass of clear liquor sat untouched before him.

It was just after one o’clock in the afternoon and Ruby Red’s saloon was empty except for the three men. There was a large crack in the mirror behind the bar that was covered by an old, worn rodeo poster that boasted of a hefty $50 prize for the winner. The room smelled of stale tobacco smoke and the air was stuffy and hot. All the windows were open but, there was no breeze from outside to cut the south Texas heat. Hart took a gulp of his beer; its crisp flavor was satisfying on his dry throat. He wiped the foam off the dark bristles of his mustache and let out an audible, “Ahhhh.

Hart turned his attention to the end of the bar. “Roman, shouldn’t you be at your farm?”

Roman laughed. Swallowing his shot, he slammed the glass down on the bar top. “Nah.”

“Who’s taking care of the goats then?”

Roman smiled a twisted, toothy grin. “Los niños. What’s the point of having children unless they are going to do work for you?”

“I guess you’ve got a point,” Hart replied then took another drink.

A sudden pain came from deep inside his jaw and a dull, throbbing ache moved into one of the teeth behind his bruised lip. Clenching his whole body, Hart took a deep breath, but after a moment the ache passed. The pain often came and went, it was strange. Rubbing at the tender spot with his fingers, he worried that he might have to get the tooth pulled.

This was the fifth or sixth occurrence of pain he’d felt since being slugged in the mouth the day before by an ornery saddle tramp. Sure, Hart had started the fight by saying the man looked uglier than a wet dog, but he was only joking. Either way, Hart finished what he’d started. He took that cowpoke by his tangled hair and held him under in the horse trough till he passed out. He really did look like a wet dog then. Smiling to himself, Hart took a drink.

Just then his friend Spencer Pitt came crashing through the double doors of the saloon and all three men turned to look at him as he traversed the room.

Hart pulled the stool next to him away from the bar and cleaned it off with his hand for Spencer in a comedic gesture while George set a glass down and poured him some whiskey.

Standing, Hart gave a humorous bow. “Your seat, sir.”

“Funny,” Spencer said as he sat down and grabbed the shot. “Thanks.”

“What’s got you so excited?” Hart asked him.

Taking the shot, Spencer winced as the liquid burned his throat. Letting out his tongue, his head shook.

“Well?” Hart asked again.

Spencer swallowed some air before he finally spoke. “The word is Jorge Ramos wants to fight you, Hart.”

Hart turned and grinned to George and Roman. “Jorge Ramos, huh? Well, tell him he can come find me then.”

“This is serious. I’ve heard tale he’s got it out for you bad.”

“Oh, I’m sure he does,” Hard said into his beer, the words making a muffled sound before he took another healthy gulp that left him staring at the bottom of an empty glass.

“Another?” George asked.

Hart nodded and pushed him the empty mug. It wasn’t even twenty minutes before another man, this time Jeb Wilson, walked through the doorway with the news.

“Jorge Ramos wants to kill you.”

“Kill me?” Hart repeated with a chuckle. Turning back to the other men at the bar he said, “Hear that? We’ve gone from fight to kill in a matter of minutes.” No sooner had he finished saying it did the pain in his jaw return with a vengeance, only this time it didn’t immediately pass.

The rest of the men carried on a conversation, about the wiles of a particular whore at the local bordello. They compared riding her to riding an unbroken stock horse with how hard she bucked, but Hart could barely focus. Tears welled up in his eyes and as the pain became too great, he quickly stood and turned for the door.

“Where you goin’?” Spencer asked.

“Gotta shit,” Hart muscled through gritted teeth.

He threw the double doors out of his way as he darted for the privy around back. Tears streaming down his cheeks now, his mouth watered as the pain grew even worse. It was hard to even keep his head straight and his vision blurred as he took hold of the door; slamming it behind him and latching it. Hart put his hands to his face and pressed his head against the wooden planks of the wall. The foul sent of piss and shit hardly registered in his mind. All he could concentrate on was the throbbing pain that was now radiating through his whole head. He tried to slow his breathing and endure it, but the pain only seemed to increase. It consumed him.

BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG! The pounding on the door was accompanied by an impatient voice. “What’s taking so goddammed long?!”

Hart didn’t answer. He couldn’t. The pain was too great. He was curled into a tight ball like an infant left out in the cold.

The pounding on the door repeated. “Did you fall in or something? Hurry it up already!”

As Hart’s pain finally began to subside, anger grew in its place. His jaw stayed clinched and his upper lip snarled under his dark bristles. Sitting up straight, he took a heavy breath.

The man pounded on the door a third time. “Hurry it up—”

The rest of his words were cut short as Hart unlatched the door and kicked it as hard as he could. The rickety, wooden boards of the privy door slammed into the man’s face. Hart jumped out and struck the man twice, once in the stomach with his left, causing him to lurch forward, then again in the face with his right, catching him with a solid uppercut. Blood burst from the man’s lips. Hart’s hand ached from striking the man’s teeth. He shook it and looked at the blood on his knuckles. One of his fingers was out of place.

Furious, Hart grabbed the man by the back of his shirt. “I guess it’s your turn!” he yelled as he threw him into the privy and slammed the door shut. Letting out a breath from his nose like a savage bull, Hart tensed then popped his finger back in place and composed himself. Wiping his blood covered hand on his pant leg, he walked back to the Ruby Red.

“What, did ya fall in?” Spencer asked him as he came through the double doors.

The rest of the men laughed.

“Something like that,” Hart replied with a smirk. He knew he might have over reacted, but it was common decency to let a man be when he’s occupying the privy.

Jeb Wilson’s brother, Pip, had joined the group while he was gone. Pip turned to Hart as he walked over and sat back down at the bar.

“Did ya hear Hart?” Pip asked.

Blood still boiling, yet to completely calm down, Hart snapped back at him. “Jorge wants to fight me. I fucking heard it, Pip!”

Pip shot back unphased. “He doesn’t just want to fight; he wants you dead.”

Hart pursed his lips. “Yes, heard that too.” Grabbing his beer, he took a drink.

“Well, what are you gonna do about it?”

All five pairs of eyes were now focused on Hart as each man waited in quiet anticipation for a response, after all he’d been known to bloody a man’s nose for lesser transgressions.

Hart took another drink of his beer, set it down, paused, then picked the glass back up and finished it off. “Maybe I’ll tickle his toes.”

“This is serious,” Jeb Wilson replied, “he’s bound to come looking for ya.”

Hart ran his tongue along his ailing tooth. “Let him come.”

Eustace Franklin burst through the double doors and before anyone could say a word, Hart turned to the man and yelled. “If you say a single word about Jorge Ramos, I’ve a mind to knock you on your ass!”

Wide-eyed, Eustace raised his hands as if there was a gun pointed at him. “Whoa, I don’t know nothing about Jorge.”

“Good.” Hart replied. He slammed his money down on the bar, then stood and walked right past Eustace and out of the Ruby Red without another word.


Oh, sí, sí, Damelo! Damelo!” Sofia’s voice easily passed through the thin door of her room, echoing off the stucco walls throughout the house.

As Hart pushed into Sofia from behind, he stared at the dusty cuckoo clock on the far wall of the room. Its chains hadn’t been pulled in years; hands fixed at 1:52. The tiny door above the clock face was barely cracked open as if the wooden bird might be spying on them from the other side with a voyeuristic gaze.

Drenched in sweat, Hart fell back onto the bed taking deep breaths. Looking up at Sofia, he smiled. Her womanly figure poised, her long, dark hair a mess from their love making. Giddy, she pulled a strand back and tucked it behind her ear, returning his smile with a girlish grin. A woman as beautiful as her was a rarity. He was lucky.

“You should come visit me more often,” Sofia said laying her head onto his bare chest.

Running his fingers through her hair, Hart laughed. “Seven times a week isn’t enough?”

“Not for me,” she replied, kissing at his chest.

She brought her lips up his neck then placed a firm kiss on his mouth. It was enough to trigger the pain in his tooth. Hart jerked away from her, turning his head to keep Sofia from seeing his weakness.

Sofia pursed her lips in scorn. “Am I just a toy for you?”

“What? No,” he replied turning back to face her.

“Then tell me I am not.”

Hart’s face went blank. “What do you mean?”

A playful smile crept from the corner of her mouth. “Tell me that you love me.”

His heart raced and his face turned flush. He quickly embraced her in his arms to keep her from seeing. When Sofia finally pulled away, she knelt over him, straddling his body. He stared into her deep brown eyes.

But his thoughts turned to Jorge and his face became sullen. “Your brother wants to kill me.”

Sofia let out half of a snorting laugh. “What do you mean?”

“He must have found out about us. Several people have told me today that he has it out for me.”

“Jorge? How?”

“Dunno. But I might have to kill him.”

“Do not joke about that!” She said. “I would hate you forever! You know he raised me when our parents died.”

“Well, he wants me dead.”

“He’s always been protective. I’ll tell him that I love you. I’ll let him know. His anger will pass.”

Hart smiled “Don’t know. Maybe you’re more trouble than it’s worth.”

Sofia’s mouth went agape in surprise, then she pursed her lips and delivered a playful slap to his cheek.

Hart clenched at his jaw and wailed out. “Ow!” The pain in his tooth pierced, throbbing in waves like dull knives cutting into him. Like before, it surged through his whole head, rendering him incapacitated. He could barely move.

“Stop. You’re not funny,” Sofia replied, slapping him again lightly him on the arm.

Hart tried to muster something to say but couldn’t manage to get any words out of his mouth. Tears ran from his eyes. When Sofia saw this, she realized he truly was in pain.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry!”

She grabbed for him. This only increased Hart’s pain. He shook her off and rolled away. When the pain did pass, he quickly stood an put on his clothes.

“Don’t leave. Stay with me. Please stay,” Sofia begged.

She reached out her arm to touch him, but Hart slapped it away. Buttoning his shirt, he lifted his suspenders over his shoulders, threw open the door and left. Frustration was building inside him. His toothache was getting worse, his lover’s brother wanted him dead, and she would hate him if he did anything about it. Was it worth putting up with Jorge’s bullshit? In that moment he thought about leaving for San Antonio or Houston but didn’t want to look like a coward.


Ruby Red’s Saloon was completely full when Hart returned. The sounds and smells of a busy establishment abounded as men played cards, smoked, and flirted with the barmaids. Spencer Pitt, Jeb Wilson and Pip Wilson were all still sitting at the bar, but Roman Sanchez had gone. Every seat at every table was full, but Hart’s stool at the bar still sat unoccupied, waiting for him.

George set another mug of beer in front of him as he sat down, then walked away to attend to some other customers.

“Where you been?” Spencer asked Hart as he took the mug in his hand.

“Had to go clear my head,” Hart replied.

“You ain’t scared of Jorge is ya?” Jeb Wilson asked.

Hart turned to Jeb, raising an eyebrow with an indignant look on his face. Holding out a finger to him, Hart wagged it, motioning for Jeb to come closer. When Jeb leaned it, Hart opened his mouth like he was about to say something, then stretched his arm out and knocked the hat off his head. “Jeb, don’t ask me stupid questions like that anymore, alright?”

“Sure thing, Hart,” Jeb Wilson replied picking up his hat.

“But what are you gonna do about Jorge?” Spencer asked.

Hart took a long swig of beer. He couldn’t kill the brother of the woman he loved. She would never forgive him, but he also couldn’t just let Jorge kill him. It was a shitty predicament. “I dunno. Probably nothing.”

Silence took to the room, as Hart stared into his glass.

“Uh, Hart,” Spencer said, tapping him on the shoulder.

“What?” He asked, glowering at his friend.

Spencer pointed to the double doors. Tall and muscular and with the same long black hair that his sister Sofia had, Jorge Ramos stood in the doorway. His thick beard was split by a large scar on his left cheek where no hair would grow, and his eyes burned when Hart turned around to face him.

“Let’s go outside. Me and you.” Jorge pointed a long finger to Hart as he said it.

Hart cracked his neck and stood. Looking Jorge up and down, his eyes stopped at the heavy Colt hanging from his hip. He knew it would be slower to draw than his own .38 Colt. This is what it was going to come down to. But it was a fight he couldn’t win no matter the outcome.

Hart nodded to Jorge. “Let me finish my beer.”

Jorge snorted a laugh, mocking him. “I will be outside.” Turning, he pushed the double doors out of his way, Jorge walked across the plank sidewalk and down into the dirt covered street.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you boys in a few,” Hart said to his friends. Swallowing the rest of his beer he set the glass down, tightened his gun belt, and walked out.

The sun was low in the western sky, but the main street that Ruby Red’s Saloon sat on ran north south, so neither man had any advantage over the other. Hart could feel the light of the setting sun burning on his right cheek. He stared across at Jorge who wiggled his fingers just above the large Colt. Hart knew he could beat him. He beaten four other men in his lifetime, one of them was a man he shouldn’t have. He’d gotten lucky then. He wouldn’t need luck this time. As he held his hand over the grip of his pistol, he concentrated at the spot on Jorge’s chest where he would put his bullet. He might as well be putting it through Sofia’s heart too.

Hart was ready to draw when the pain in his tooth exploded. It shot through his skull. He closed his eyes, tensed and hit the ground. When he opened his eyes again, the pain had moved from his head and into his chest. Crimson blood that smelled heavy of iron stained him as it poured from his heart. He stuck his trigger finger down in the hole and could feel the warmth of his soul as it escaped him. Hart’s vision blurred as the dull ache took over the rest of his body and it became harder to breathe. Thinking of Sofia, he took one last breath, closed his eyes, and let death take him.