I’m a private kind of man. I don’t make a habit of poking my nose into other folks’ business, and I’m obliged when they stay out of mine. I’m not unfriendly, and I try not to be unpleasant, but some people just don’t know when to quit. When the loud man flung the bat wing doors open and stomped into the saloon, I just knew he was one of those people.
I was sitting at a table in the back corner with my back to the wall. Less than half an hour earlier I had ridden into Bisby, Arizona. After two weeks of riding from sunup to sundown to get there, I was tired of beans and jerky. I was tired of washing particles of sand from my mouth with the brackish water from my canteen. I was tired of sweating all day and sleeping on rocky ground. Almost thirty years as a cowboy, pony express rider, and Texas Ranger had accustomed me to discomfort; they had not made me fond of it.
On the table in front of me sat my supper: a large, juicy steak; four big, fluffy sourdough biscuits; a large, open tin of peaches; and a cup of the best coffee I had ever tasted. All I wanted was to be left alone to enjoy my meal. Now I was pretty sure that I was about to be interrupted. Keeping my attention on my plate, I decided to put away as much of my meal as I could. Besides, maybe the loud man wouldn’t pay any mind to me.
“Hey, Grandpa!” he said. Ignoring him, I continued to eat.
“I guess the old man must be deaf!’ he said. The two cowboys who had come in with him, smaller rags torn from the same bolt of cloth, laughed.
“Maybe you should speak up, big brother,” one of them said.
“Or move a little closer, Del,” the other added.
I poured a second cup of steaming coffee from the pot that the bartender had left for me. Still looking at my plate, I bit into a biscuit.
“I ain’t getting any closer,” said Del. That old man stinks bad enough from here.” Again there was laughter.
He was right about one thing; I didn’t smell very good. Riding straight through town to the livery stable, I had unsaddled Midnight and paid the stable boy to rub him down and give him a double helping of oats. I had stopped at the hotel, paid for a room, and left my gear there. On my way out I had asked the clerk to recommend an eating place and then ordered a bath to be ready in an hour. Then I had come here to enjoy my supper.
I ate another piece of steak so tender I could almost cut it with my fork. As I chewed, I closed my eyes and anticipated soaking my tired, aching body in a tub of hot water while
smoking one of the stogies I had tucked away in my saddlebags.
“Shhhh-- I think Grandpa has dozed off,” said Del. “Matt, he just might fall into his plate and smother hisself. Maybe you better wake him up.”
I heard the distinct sound of someone cocking a Colt. A nearly deafening explosion followed; and I could feel the bullet smash into the floor inches from my feet, showering my pant leg with splinters. As I glanced in their direction, Matt, who appeared to be the youngest of the three, spun his six-shooter on his finger and slipped it smoothly into his holster.
“Grandpa,” said Del, “I reckon you ought to thank Matt here for saving your life. I would have asked Tony to do it; but he’s such a bad shot, he might have hit you.”
I knew they weren’t going to go away, but I wasn’t about to give up my supper because these rowdy boys wanted some entertainment. They appeared to be more bored than bad. I took another bite of biscuit and washed it down with a swig of coffee. Saluting them with my cup, I smiled.
“I’m obliged, Matt, for keeping me awake. I’m mighty tired right now. I’m obliged to you, too, Del, for picking the best shot to do the honors. Why, who could tell by looking that he’s the one that can shoot straight enough to hit the floor?”
I had another bite of steak while the brothers digested what I had said.
“I think that old man is making fun of us,” said Tony, taking a step forward.
“Hold on,” said Del, placing a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Old man, are you trying to make fools of us?”
“Now, that would be closing the corral gate after the horses were gone, wouldn’t it?” I asked.
“What horses?” Matt whispered.
I buttered another biscuit, took a bite, and then cut off another piece of steak. Del was about to speak, but I cut him off. “I’m saying my dear, departed grandmother could have made that shot from twice as far away and without her spectacles. But then you weren’t wearing yours either.”
“Matt don’t wear spectacles,” Del said.
“Maybe he needs to,” I said, sipping more coffee.
“Del, he is making fun of us,” said Tony. “Can I--”
“I’ll take care of this,” said Del, his hand resting on the butt of his Colt. “You got some mouth on you, Grandpa,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said. I finished my biscuit and began to butter another one.
“Stand up!” Del said.
“Can’t,” I said.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“Can’t!” I said, nearly shouting. Taking a bite of steak, I shook my head. “Matt’s eyes are bad, and Del’s hard of hearing. Is anything wrong with you, Tony?”
Leaning with his back against the bar and his thumbs hooked in his gun belt, Tony focused his attention on raking the floor with his spur. “Well, sometimes when the thunder and lightning gets real bad, I--”
“Shut up, Tony!” said Del. “Grandpa, I told you to stand up.”
“Can’t,” I said.
“Why not--are your knees knocking too bad?” Del asked.
“Nope,” I said, chewing a large piece of steak and gesturing at the table with my fork. “I’m eating my supper, and I like to eat sitting down when I can.”
Three explosions followed so quickly that they sounded more like one long roar in the room. A small cloud of smoke drifted toward the ceiling. Brushing splinters from my pants, I glanced at the bullet holes in the floor. I shook my head slowly and looked at Del, who was still holding his Colt.
“Granny shot like that one time,” I said. “Shut herself in her cabin for a week--wouldn’t talk to anybody for the pure shame of it. Bar keep says he’s got some dried apple pie in the kitchen. You wouldn’t happen to know if it’s any good, would you?”
“Yes, sir,” said Matt. “I have a piece pretty near every time I’m in town--”
“Shut up!” Del said. “I hit what I’m aiming at, old man.”
I buttered my last biscuit, laid my knife across the edge of my plate, and then took a silver dollar from my vest pocket. Holding it up, I asked, “Del, are you a gambler?”
Del looked confused. “What are you getting at?”
I smiled and laid the dollar on the edge of the table. That dollar says you’re not a good enough shot to move the spittoon at the end of the bar twice without putting a hole in it.”
“I only get two shots?” he asked, squinting at the spittoon.
“Yep,” I said. I drank what was left of my coffee and then refilled my cup. I put another piece of steak in my mouth and chewed slowly.
When Del’s first slug hit the floor close enough to rock the spittoon slightly, I gave him a nod. His second shot was too far to the left. He holstered his Colt and flipped me a dollar, which I caught and laid on top of the first one. “Double or nothing, Matt?” I asked. “You get four shots to move it three times.”
“I don’t mind taking on old man’s money,” Matt said, smiling. “Let me get your dollar back for you, big brother.” He drew smoothly and fired.
“Looks like one of us is going to be buying a new spittoon,” I said.
“You talk too much, Grandpa,” said Matt, taking deliberate aim and squeezing the trigger. The spittoon scooted two inches, nearly turning over. His third shot moved it again.
The bar keep, standing behind the bar at the same end as the brothers, had been silently polishing glasses and stacking them within easy reach, stopping occasionally to pour more whiskey for them. “Someone will have to pay for it,” he mumbled.
“Loser pays for the spittoon,” said Del, smiling, I reckon, at the idea of getting his money back.
“Fair enough,” I replied, brushing the two silver dollars off the table just as Matt fired. It wasn’t much of a distraction, but it was enough. Matt’s face reddened as he holstered his gun. “You did that on purpose, old man!”
“Sorry to be so clumsy,” I said, stooping to retrieve the coins. “Tell you what I’ll do though, boys; I’ll call off that bet and make the same bet with Tony. All he has to do is hit the spittoon three of five times. It’s ruined anyway. What do you say?”
Del and Matt looked at each other and then at Tony. “You got the two dollars?” Del asked.
“Come on, Del,” said Tony, a trace of a whine in his voice. “I can do it--I know I can! Just give me a chance!”
I used that last biscuit to soak up some of the juice from the steak. Wiping my mouth with a cloth napkin, I leaned back in my chair and smiled.
“You’d better hit the danged thing!” said Del, giving Tony a shove that put him two feet closer to the spittoon. I noticed that Tony’s brothers stepped behind him as he drew his gun, and I wondered if I should move. I was, after all, only fifteen feet to the left of the spittoon. I had reckoned that Del had exaggerated about how bad Tony’s shooting was, but he hadn’t. The one time he did hit the spittoon, his thumb slipped on the hammer, causing him to fire before he had taken time to aim. Head hanging, Tony turned to the bar and finished his drink.
“Here, mister,” he said, shuffling toward me and holding out a handful of coins. “You win.”
“Wait a minute!” said Del, grabbing Tony’s shoulder. “This old man has stole all the money from us he’s going to--in fact, I’m going to take back my dollar and his too.” As he started toward me, each brother grabbed an arm.
“We agreed to the bet, Del,” said Matt, “and we lost. Pay the man, Tony.”
As Tony let go of his brother’s arm and started toward me, Del’s head drooped; and his shoulders sagged. He must have felt Matt’s grip relax because suddenly Del tore free. Jumping to his left, the big man leveled his Colt at my chest.
Sipping coffee, I studied him over the rim of my cup. “Bar keep,” I said, smiling, “I’m ready for pie.”
“Don’t get between us, Tony,” said Del. “Just keep walking to the side, and get them two dollars. Bring them back here and give them to me.”
“Del,” said Tony, “I don’t want no trouble. Why don’t we--”
“Move!” Del said.
“Del,” I said, “listen to Tony. You don’t want trouble. I want to show you something very special, and then we’ll see if you still want the money. May I? I’m going to move very slowly so you can see what I’m doing.” With my thumb and forefinger, I pulled my own Colt from its holster and laid it on the table.
Matt’s spurs jingled as he stepped to Del’s side. The three stood in a rough semicircle in front of my table with Tony a step or two closer to me. “It looks like a plain old Colt to me,”
said Del. “What’s so special about it?”
“It has something your guns don’t have,” I said. I picked it up with my right hand and cocked it, keeping the barrel pointed at the ceiling.
Instantly Matt and Tony drew their guns and pointed them at me. Del chuckled. “That Colt of yours is outnumbered three to one, Grandpa. What does it have that ours don’t?”
I motioned to the bar keep, who started toward the kitchen. “Bullets, Del,” I said with a smile. “You boys light a shuck. I have some pie to eat, a bath to take, and a cigar to smoke.” I extended my left hand toward Tony for the coins. “I’m much obliged to you for the entertainment and for the supper which you have so generously provided. I’ll be happy to recommend your hospitality to others if you wish; but if not, I’ll never breathe a word of what happened here today.”
They shuffled from the room without looking back. The bar keep set a huge piece of dried apple pie on the table in front of me. Holstering my Colt, I ate my pie in peace.