Western Short Story
Hank Maynard stood at the bars. His bony fingers and gaunt cheeks pressed up against the cold steel as he called out to the sheriff.
“Can I get my clothes back now?”
Sheriff Aaron Hanley was leaning back in his chair reading the morning news. He looked over the top of his paper and across the toes of his boots, which were propped up on his desk.
The paper muffled a low chuckle from the sheriff as he glanced toward Hank standing at the bars in nothing but his faded long-johns and a pair of worn-out socks. Like Hank himself, they had seen better days.
“You can have them back if you promise you’ll keep them on,” replied the sheriff.
Hank scratched his head with a look of genuine bewilderment on his face. “I honestly don’t recall taking them off!” he mused.
“Well believe me, you did, and it wasn’t a pretty site. A water trough is no place to take a bath. I don’t care what time of the night it is.”
The sheriff swung his feet from the desk and set down his paper. “That’s the problem with you, Hank. You get yourself so blasted drunk… half the time you don’t know what you’re doing. Weren’t you even a little bit curious as to why you were here in my jailhouse?” He asked.
“I didn’t figure it was because I’d been doing good deeds all night long.” He backed away from the bars and sat on the cot with his back against the wall, his knees pulled up tight to his chest. Wrapping his arms around his legs, he rested his chin upon his knees, and stared past the bars of the small window and lost himself in the morning light.
The sheriff squeezed Hank’s clothes through the bars and let them fall to the floor. “I don’t get it Hank. How did it come down to this? You being a guest in my jailhouse, wearing nothing but your long-johns. I can’t believe you’ve always been like this?”
Hank turned his attention away from the window and toward the sheriff. “Yup, here I am, nothing but a low down drunk without a penny to my name. And the funny thing is… I used to have money, lots of it! I wore the best clothes money could buy. I had women, a big house and a fine horse. I know it sounds hard to believe, sheriff, but it’s the Gods’ honest truth. I was once a very wealthy man.”
Sheriff Hanley did find it hard to believe, but he humored Hank just the same. “Oh, you don’t say. Rich were you?”
“Sheriff, how long have you known me?” asked Hank.
After some thoughtful consideration the sheriff replied, “Well, I’d say about ten years by my count.”
“And that would be about right,” agreed Hank. “And how old do you think I am?”
“Well, that’s hard to say, maybe, sixty… sixty-five.”
“Would you believe I’m still in my fifties. Fifty three to be exact. But I won’t hold that guess against you. I know the whiskey has taken its toll on my good looks and youthful disposition. Pull up a seat, sheriff. I got me a story to tell.”
Sheriff Hanley was always a sucker for a good story and he figured this one would be a doozey, so he gave in quite readily. “I’ll give you a few minutes, but it had better be good.”
“I guarantee you, it’ll not only be good, it’ll be the God honest truth. Have you ever heard of a place called Dry Water?”
“Can’t say as I have,” replied the sheriff.
“No, I don’t suppose you have,” replied Hank. “Dry Water was a growing little town about two hundred miles Northeast of here, and I say was because it ain’t no more. Ten years ago, every last stick of that town burned to the ground. It was five years before that terrible day I pulled my wagon into Dry Water.”
Hank began to clear his throat. “Say sheriff, you wouldn’t happen to have a bottle in that desk of yours, would you? My throat is a might dry and I could use a drink before I go on.”
“No drinkin’,” replied the sheriff. “And while you’re yappin’, put your britches on.”
Hank grabbed up his clothes as he continued with his story. “As I was saying, I pulled into the town of Dry Water with a pocket full of money and a wagon full of something I figured would change that town forever. Little did I know how right I was, or that it would happen in quite the way it did.
“It was late in the day and I had stopped in front of the local saloon. A sleepy little establishment called the Dry Water Well. I was a confident little cuss in my younger days. I pushed my way through the batwings, walked into the dusty little room and took a good look around. Two men, one older and the other just a kid, occupied a table in a corner of the room.
“The younger one was out cold. His head was on the table and he was drooling from the mouth. The older gent looked as if he would soon be joining his friend.
“The bartender, a portly, middle-aged man, sat at a table near the bar reading a newspaper. And when I say portly, I’m being kind. His belly was so big he looked as if he was about to give birth. Glancing up from his paper, he mumbled a feeble greeting in my direction and asked me what I wanted.”
“I’ll take a shot of whiskey,” I replied.
“You’re in luck, I just made up a fresh batch this morning,” he replied as he squeezed himself out of the chair and made his way behind the bar. He grabbed up a bottle of the amber liquid from off the shelf, pulled the cork and poured a shot.
“I gulped it down and came damn close to spitting it back up. My throat was on fire! “What the hell is in this?” I asked, between my spitin’ and gagin’
“It’s my own recipe,” bragged the bartender. “I call it the double T. It’s a secret recipe, but I’ll give you a hint, the T’s stand for turpentine and tobacco, but I won’t tell you my secret ingredient.”
“I don’t even want to know,” I replied. “My whole insides have gone numb!”
As my gut began to calm down I happened to notice an old piano by the stairwell and asked the bartender if he had a regular player.
“That thing hasn’t been played in over three years, mister, and then only on occasion,” he replied with an apathetic glance.
“Do you mind if I press the ivory a bit?” I asked. “I didn’t wait for a reply. I wandered over to the dusty box and lifted the cover from the keys. It was a bit out of tune but I didn’t care. I started off with the standard faire of the latest rag from down south and finished up with a classical piece by Chopin called Nocturne in C sharp minor. My…”
“Now, just wait a doggone minute, Hank,” blurted the sheriff. “Do you mean to tell me you not only play the piano, but you’re also schooled in classical piano? This happens to be something I know about. My daughter plays the piano and she plays the classics quite well, including Chopin. It’s no easy task.
“You told me this was going to be a true story. Why you’re nothing more than the town drunk and a nobody in my book! So don’t be telling me you’ve had that type of schooling. I know better. So listen up, if you continue to bullshit me, I’ll keep you locked up until I’m sure you’re sober. Right now I’m kinda’ doubtin’ it”
“I can see you’re finding this hard to take in. But that’s only because you know me as the town drunk and nothing more. But as God is my witness, I swear I’m not making this up. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll continue on with my story,” replied Hank.
“As I was saying, my playing almost had that pregnant bartender in tears, and by the time I’d finished, he felt confident in revealing to me over the course of several drinks, that business at the Dry Water Well was extremely slow, almost nonexistent.
“I could see the place had potential, so I offered to buy it from him for the sum of three hundred dollars in cash. He thought hard about it over several more drinks… then finally agreed to accept my offer.
“I gave him the cash that very day and he wrote me up a bill of sale, making it all legal like. The following day he packed up what few belongings he couldn’t part with, and as he was leaving, he stopped at the door for one last look about. As he did, he called out to me, “gunpowder… the secret ingredient is gunpowder.” He continued out through the doorway and that was the last I ever seen of him.”
Sheriff Hanley was still listening, but showing no indication of how he perceived the old man’s tale.
Hank paused a moment, moistened his lips with his tongue, then continued with his story. “Buying the ‘Well’ was easier than I thought it would be. I pulled my wagon around back, took care of my horse and unloaded my wares. Like I said earlier, what I had in the back of that wagon would change the town of Dry Water forever.”
“C’mon, don’t keep me in suspense, what did you have?” Asked the sheriff with a renewed interest in Hank’s story.
“What I had… was as good as gold. I had me a still for making corn whiskey. I picked it up from a traveler out of Tennessee. He taught me how to make some of the best corn whiskey I’ve ever tasted.”
“Couldn’t be as good as the whiskey served at the Blue Moon here in town I’ll bet,” commented the sheriff..
Hank gave the sheriff a knowing smile. He knew exactly what went into making the whiskey at the Blue Moon. It was his recipe.
“It’s no better and no worse,” he replied, then continued on with his story. “It wasn’t long before I had the ‘Well’ packed most nights of the week.
“Men came from miles around just to get a taste of my brew. And most of them left with a bottle or two in their saddlebags. As the years passed, I’d made enough money to live like a king.
“I invested my money in all the real-estate I could get my hands on, and ended up owning half the town. I had more money than I could spend in a lifetime. I had women hanging off my arm wherever I went. I was rich, and well liked by most everyone in town. It was the best of times. I had it made, yes sir, I had it all… until that fateful night!” Once more the old man paused to moisten his lips.
“Well, don’t stop now,” implored Sheriff Hanley with a hint of intrigue in his voice.
Hank smiled, then continued, “I was in the process of making a new batch. I’d been sampling my whiskey as I did most nights when a new batch was being made. Regrettably, on this one particular evening, I started sampling a little too early and ended up drinking more than I should have.
“Feeling the effects of the potent nectar, I decided to get some fresh air, so I wandered out into the field behind the saloon and before I knew it, I had passed out.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t come around in time to make it back to the still before the temperature got too high. The explosion woke me and brought me to my feet.
“The whole damn contraption went up in a ball of fire. The explosion took out half the saloon and caused a fire to spread rapidly through the building.
“It’s my understanding that several of my customers died in the explosion and fire.” Hank took a deep breath and wiped the tears from his eyes. “The fire spread rapidly from building to building. The townsfolk tried their damndest to put it out, but it was useless. There really wasn’t anything anyone could do.”
“Are you okay?” Asked the sheriff.
The old man sniffed, cleared his throat and wiped his eyes. “Sure, I’m fine, I’m almost done. Anyhow, It was one hell of a night. The following morning, the town was nothing more than a burned out shell.
“Nothing left, just hot smoldering ashes. Not a building remained standing and a dozen people perished in the flames, all because of me. I was ruined. Everything I owned was gone. What money I had, burned up with the bank.
“I knew those who had managed to escape the inferno would soon figure out how the fire started and they would take their anger out on me, and rightly so I might add. I saddled up my horse, loaded my saddlebags with a few remaining bottles of my whiskey and headed out of town… well, such as it was.”
“Crissakes, Hank that’s terrible. What did you do?” the sheriff asked with genuine sympathy.
“What could I do? I wandered aimlessly for a spell and eventually ended up here… drunk. I’ve been drinking and fighting my demons ever since. I’m afraid I can’t get what I caused on that fateful night out of my mind. So I drink. I drink to try and help me forget. I drink until I pass out. But the trouble is, sheriff, I always sober up enough to remember.
“I remember that dreadful night when my whole life was turned upside-down, and I remember the faces of the town folk the next morning. It was more than I could bare, and it still is. So, I begin to drink some more. A never-ending vicious circle you might say! And that’s my story. Now, can you please let me out of here sheriff? I need a drink!”
The sheriff opened the cell door and let Hank out. “That was quite a story Hank. You almost had me fooled. Especially the part where you shed a tear. But if I’m to be honest, I don’t believe a word of it. Now git out of here and don’t let me catch you drunk in public again.”
Hank left the jail and headed in the direction of the saloon. After an hour or so, Sheriff Hanley decided to head toward the saloon himself as he began his daily rounds.
Carried on a cool afternoon breeze, a tune from the saloon’s piano could be easily heard. As he got closer he realized the music wasn’t the familiar banging of the keys by some heavy handed piano player. In fact, it sounded light and classical, like something his daughter might play. He suddenly recognized the piece. It was Chopin … a piece called Nocturne in C sharp minor!
The sheriff thought back to the story Hank had told him earlier in the day. “No way,” he thought as he picked up his pace toward the saloon.
© Copyright 2020 by Scott A. Gese All Rights Reserved.