Maybe it was the heavy atmosphere inside the saloon that made the patrons so eager to blurt out their secrets. The tobacco smoke flooding the air acting as a truth serum nobody could fight off.
Behind the bar, Jesse scowled at the glass he dried with a cloth that had seen better days. He shot a dark look over his shoulder, watching as the stranger slammed an empty tumbler back onto the scarred wooden counter. Tobacco smoke or not, the alcohol definitely leant a hand.
Resisting the urge to tell the patron to discuss his latest conquest with someone else, preferably someone in the next state over, the barkeep set the glass on the shelf with several others and reached for the whiskey. A gesture Jesse wasn’t even aware of making until the cowboy was urging him to fill the tumbler a little more.
He’d given up listening long ago, somewhere between the stranger’s birth and first word. Like he cared about the man’s life story. Resting his weight on the bar, he sighed, reaching down to rub at his left knee. The ache spread up his thigh, curling around his hips and into his spine. Even the smallest movement was a chore and listening to the rambling idiot wasn’t helping.
In business for little over two weeks and he was sure he’d heard every story anyone could tell him. Locals and strangers alike.
Straightening up, he turned back to the patrons, scanning the room for trouble. As he did, the talkative man paused his tale. With one hand resting on the counter for balance, he leant back on his stool and spat a wad of tobacco into the nearby spittoon.
Glad for the reprieve and the accuracy of the drunken man’s aim, Jesse turned his attention to a group playing poker. Another round ended to a chorus of groans and the smug look of the winner. He’d cheated, but then it wasn’t Jesse’s business. If the other players were too wasted to see the cards peeking out of the man’s sleeve, the barkeep wasn’t about to start a brawl. So long as they paid their due, he didn’t care.
The drunken cowboy started talking again. Jesse tuned in long enough to judge how drunk the man was by his slurring. He caught the tail end of a lengthy tale of a mid-life crisis and promptly zoned out again.
One of the poker players stumbled over, offering a much needed distraction and tossing a curse over his shoulder when his comrades laughed at his inebriated state. He slammed several coins onto the counter, slurring out his request.
Amazed that the patron still had money to pay for the drinks given his losing streak, Jesse replaced the payment with several glasses. The gambler gathered the drinks with reverence, making his way back to his game with more care than he’d demonstrated before. Jesse rolled his eyes, grabbing another glass to clean. At least he didn’t have to mop up wasted whiskey.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the drunken cowboy down the rest of his drink and slam the tumbler onto the counter again. The silent demand making Jesse flinch. He really didn’t want to buy more glasses because of a heavy handed oaf who talked too much.
Could he be any more boring?
Jesse sighed, he was stuck with the man. He didn’t seem the type to have many friends. If any.
Ready to put an end to the blight’s presence on his property, Jesse turned to dismiss him. As he did, the cowboy leaned forward, crooking his finger to beckon him closer.
“Got me somethin’ to tell ya,” he said.
Did this guy ever shut up? The barkeep set down the glass he was cleaning and folded his arms on the counter. He caught sight of the six-shooters hanging in the holsters either side of the man’s waist. The leather sported a design that looked more expensive than he expected the cowboy to be able to afford. Part of him mourned the missed information as to their origin while the other wondered whether he could borrow one and silence the stranger for good.
In the far corner, laughter caught his attention. The sheriff’s table.
Pity. Of course, if he did shoot him, he’d have quite a mess to clean up. Blood always seemed to stain. He quite liked the dark wood flooring as it was.
“Got a stash in the caves few miles west,” the cowboy slurred. “Gonna gather it up and ride further north come ‘morrow…”
Jesse considered himself a decent actor, if not one of the best. Walking a knife edge between friendliness and sending alarm bells ringing was a dangerous game, but it was one he was good at. The locals learned to trust him easily enough.
He offered a crooked smile, expressing his ‘sorrow’ at the early departure. Now he remembered why he’d settled in a saloon instead of riding through the plains.
Jesse reached for the bottle again, pouring a generous measure in the stranger’s empty glass. It wouldn’t do for him to leave just yet.
“Drink up,” he said. “It’s on the house.”
Sort of, but the drunkard didn’t need to know that.
By the time the man’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he toppled backward off his stool, Jesse had all he needed to know. The thump as the cowboy hit the floor drew the attention of the other patrons who soon turned away again. People passing out wasn’t anything new.
Jesse glanced at a duo preparing to leave. They knew the drill and didn’t protest to dragging the wasted man out and forcing him conscious by dumping him in the nearest water trough. As the stranger spluttered awake, the horses hitched to the railing skittering in fright, the sheriff wandered over.
Amusement shone in his eyes as he set down an empty tumbler and Jesse shot him a dark look. The sheriff’s lips quirked into a small smile and the barkeep dropped his attention to filling the glass. He wouldn’t admit he was happier knowing pretending to listen had paid off. Not when the man already knew. Instead, Jesse set the whiskey bottle on the counter, tipping his head in the direction of the storeroom.
An imperceptible nod was the sheriff’s response and Jesse moved away as the man drained his glass. He looked back when he heard the sheriff leave and, through the window, watched him lift the drunken cowboy to his feet, steering him down the dusty street.
* * *
Closing time found the saloon locked tight and Jesse sat in the storeroom, drinking straight from the bottle at his side. When a figure emerged from the shadows, he held the whiskey out in a silent offer.
The candlelight gleamed off the six-pointed star attached to the man’s shirt, the shadows dancing across the metal when the flame flickered. Jesse spoke as the sheriff drank, sparing no time for pleasantries. Unlike the stranger earlier, he knew the dangers of talking. He knew who he was dealing with.
“We’ll go tonight. Bring it back ‘fore anyone else,” the sheriff said, handing the bottle back. “‘Bout time. Almost figured you’d gone soft, boss.”
“Watch it,” Jesse warned. “Y’all know why I bought this place.”
The older man dipped his head. They both knew what their last adventure had cost them. Jesse rubbed his knee. The bullet had missed him but his horse hadn’t been as lucky. He could still feel the weight of the dead animal crushing his leg.
It’d taken almost a month to get back on his feet but he’d never be useful out on the prairie again. He took a gulp of whiskey, closing his eyes at the familiar burn. Didn’t matter any. He was too young to retire.
“Y’all get your due, boss,” the sheriff said. “The men and I, we ain’t givin’ up on ya.” He paused. “Oh, got a gift for ya. The owner don’t need ‘em.”
The barkeep realized as he accepted the offered object that he’d been handed two six-shooters tucked into a leather holster. He traced his thumb over the intricate design on the material and heard the quiet squeak of the hinges on the backdoor.
Outside, hooves pounded against the dust track and Jesse blew out the light. In his room, he set the dead cowboy’s weapons on his writing table.
I figured not all barkeeps could be completely willing to listen to drunken strangers rant about their problems so this is a play on the whole ‘friendly ear’ bartenders offer.
My first attempt at a Western and my entry for the final week of the 3-week challenge I took part in at the start of August. Unlike The Fingerprint Killer and Thunder-clowns this one didn’t win but, to my happy surprise, got Daily Deviation on Deviant Art instead.