Western Short Story
Whistling Dixie
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

The lead rider for Joel Marshal’s herd, The JM5, heading up the trail for Montana, softly whistled Dixie for all his hours in the saddle, him from Kentucky every breath of his day as long as he was working the herd. He answered to hellos that called him “Kit, Ket or hey there,” as long as the hailing was friendly in tone or attention. He’d been this way before and knew every spit or swallow saloon on the route from Kentucky to Colorado or Montana, points of sale, release, the first few drinks not counted by him if the barkeep was half asleep, or too busy to count on his own, but was glad to see every one of them make it as far as his place at the bar.

He liked the lot of them, especially the one now coming to the bar, who’d been here before, whistling, singing, usually dry as a bone or a dead cactus prone on a sandpile way out there on the near-empty desert that could stand a cuss or two.

He knew this cowboy’s name, never said aloud, was Kittering Mulvaney, enough weight for any cowpoke to bear in any saloon of the land from here to there. Kit, he also knew, liked things southern in nature, in talk, in song, and in any saloon he entered en route to that “here to there,” every stop made in the Golden West while heading elsewhere.

“Hi, Dutch,” he said, almost singing the name, the hello, the smile of greeting near a yard wide and fully authentic, “how they hanging?”

Dutch, from his usual spot behind the Dead Oasis Saloon bar, responded, “Not one since last week when they near dead-to-rights caught a horse thief sitting a saddle and a pony that someone else was missing. He hung straight as an arrow, a sore sight for all eyes in the crowd who ever thought of taking a ride on another cowboy’s horse and his saddle in the mix, rather than walking to the stable for a loaner.”

His pronouncements, he figured, were done for the day, for there might not be another reply sought for a full day of work for himself, “Mum” being the best word-part of parenthood, surely the unlikeliest measure to get into self-caused trouble in daylight hours. Night, it was widely known in the West, along the cow trails at least, was a different creature.

This late night was like them all, everybody in sight at noise-making of some disorder, and Kit as quiet as ever, probably locked up by memories, until his best pal showed up at his side, like he had snuck into a hen coop for a few breakfast eggs. First, he wasn’t there, then he was, with his arm around Kit’s shoulders, most affectionate for two gents.

To boot, Dutch thought he was the handsomest of the lot of men he had met, served, rolled them out onto the dusty road when they got too stupid drunk and were bound to hurt themselves or the innocents around them. But this gent was different all the way around. His name came on the same path, as it was Worcester Inkwood Saltonstaall, far and wide called Wink at a first meeting, by some unsaid decree, and used evermore in talk, contact, expressions of any kind of thought; Wink he was then and forever more.

Oh, did they get drunk that night, drinking round for round, each time a toast that made others listen to them, absorb some of the tales, get to really like the vibes beating truly between two trail riders, friends of the sod and the Lord High and Mighty controlling their guns at four sides, not a curse in the mix from the two or between the two.

Wink admitted he had dumped a bucket of beans at the foreman’s feet, sort of miring him in one spot, and all because of a stupid argument. There was a roar of approval from the bar crowd, solid hilarity at the guessed-work sight, projecting real images, each ending in uproarious conjecture.

It carried the crowd for noisy minutes, a bit of clapping and pounding of the bar like a thunder loosed overhead, until Kit said, in true observation, “You didn’t spill that bucket of beans on the foreman’s feet; I did.”

About that crowd, this new twist cast a silence, a realization that words had come between two old pals of the order, so cemented one minute like no other two men I the whole saloon, but a sense of division, diversion, between the two pals.

Dutch, before any of them saw it coming, the disagreement all the way, the argument, the diversion, the ultimate separation of two deepest friends, so he stiffened himself behind the bar, ever the first to fly and hide when trouble broke out in front of him, realizing he had hung on as long as he did by his own manner of diversion, separation, disappearance,

He felt anew the rumble of the Civil War, the threat of it, the causes of it hidden in a daylight growth, snap into the saloon, the long-gone war about to erupt again between two of the closest gents he knew who traveled the same trails for all their working lives, and dragging all their connections into the rumbles. It was the perfect imbalance of it all, meek opposition and thunderous canon shots scarring the land and lives by the hundreds at a time; was such a replication to start again, and right in front of him.

He didn’t know if he should run and hide from controversy, as he had so many times, into clear comfort and ease until cessation came along, but these two were the best of friends, and now about ready to start the war one more time. It was time for him to make a difference, not to run away, like he always did.

The power surge came over him, the meek bartender, the runner, the hider, the hands-off gent who minded just his personal business to the ultimate extremes. “Dutch” could have well been “Duck” in his vocabulary, in his make-up, in his history, the story of his life near its end.

With one move of desperation, he brought out from under the bar, the Henry Ford Winchester 1887 lever-action shotgun, the only gun he had ever fired, and that was at the day of purchase when he found out it worked and how to fire it, before he put it under the bar, it seems forever long ago.

As if out of sight of everybody in the saloon, he aimed it high into the air and fired a single round that had been in place since purchase, not sure it would work this trip.

The blast went up into the ceiling, scattering some remnants atop the suddenly still mob of customers, and the two pals at argument, not bringing down the house, but shutting it up in silence, amazement, stillness. Not a soul moved. Not a breath, it seemed, was taken for full minutes, the two basic friends and sudden antagonists stunned into inactivity, the wonder overcoming them that decent and harmless Dutch had fired a gun above their heads, above all heads, slight debris still falling atop the crowd, a mix of wood splinters, dust of plaster, and unknown dirt shook loose from the saloon’s history.

Silence and calm, atop amazement, reigned over all, especially over Dutch, the meek bartender of the Dead Oasis Saloon.