OUT WEST : NUMBER SIXTEEN
It was hot, even for summer in the Southwest. The shimmering air was not conducive to comfort for anyone unfortunate enough to be outdoors – and someone was. A weary horseman headed at snail’s pace towards a huddle of buildings that made up the only settlement for many miles around. Coated with the ubiquitous dust, man and beast looked almost like a single creature – a moving statue.
On reaching the livery stable, the man arranged care for his mount, then crossed the baking street to the saloon, finding it occupied only by the owner, Sean O’Reilly, who paused in his work of cleaning the bartop to cast his eyes over the apparition before him. ‘Howdy,’ he said with a nod. ‘Warm out there.’
The newcomer took off his hat and used it to batter the rest of his apparel, raising a storm that would later keep the fastidious host busy for half an hour. ‘Sure is,’ he replied, ‘an’ I reckon I’ve had my share of it. You can give me the longest beer you have, then maybe a few more.’
Observing his visitor’s condition, O’Reilly summoned a look that managed to combine pain and embarrassment, then turned up his palms. ‘Sorry, I can’t oblige you right now.’
‘What’s that?’ said the fatigued stranger, his forearms resting on the bar.
O’Reilly shrugged resignedly. ‘Like to help you, friend, but we have a town ordinance against drinkin’ in public places before six o’clock an’ it’s only four forty.’
The stranger’s face took on a hostile look. ‘You tryin’ to make fool of me?’ he snapped.
‘Nope. We got a deputy sheriff here who’s mighty touchy about such things. If I sell you any liquor before time, he’ll likely close me down.’
‘Beer ain’t liquor.’
‘It is here.’
The stranger straightened sharply. ‘Mister,’ he rasped, ‘I mean to have a beer, an’ if you won’t serve it, I’ll help myself.’ He had no way of knowing that the saloon-keeper was the most formidable brawler in the county and never loath to demonstrate his pugilistic power.
O’Reilly stepped out from behind the bar, loosening his apron strings. ‘You’re out of line,’ he said. ‘I guess I’ll have to put you right.’ He cocked his fists in a reflex action, yet for once he didn’t really like the idea of doing what was in his mind. He saw that apart from being dead beat, the stranger was obviously well over a decade ahead of his own thirty-two years and, though matching him in height at five-eleven, was a stringy hundred and fifty pounds or so, facing a hard-packed two hundred and ten.
Having noted that O’Reilly was unarmed, the gaunt stranger might have chosen to enforce his will with the threat of lead, but he knew there was a code. He opened his gun belt and tossed it onto a table. ‘Let’s get started,’ he growled.
It was a memorable bout. For a man in his state and conceding so much else, the stranger gave an astonishing account of himself, drawing on a reserve of nervous energy that drove him beyond his apparent physical limits.
Wary circling was interspersed with toe-to-toe slogging and liberal use of thumbs, foreheads and elbows. Once, they tumbled out onto the boardwalk locked together, O’Reilly trying to apply a rib-crushing hug to his opponent, who was seeking to throttle him. They broke by mutual consent to escape the furnace heat. The instant they were inside again, the stranger was thrown halfway across the room, sliding on his back until his head struck the base panel of the old piano with a resounding dong. He sprang up and resumed the contest.
At one point the saloon-keeper hurled his opponent clear over the bar and against the rear wall with a crash that brought down a dozen bottles from the shelves. Even that didn’t stop the stranger, who bounded back over the woodwork to dive upon his adversary. The local champion bruiser began to feel as though he was trying conclusions with a grizzly bear. But the stranger was weakening.
O’Reilly seemed to see his chance. He stepped forwards incautiously, straight into a cannonball right that put him down. He clambered to his feet and the tussle went on. Finally, the stranger’s flagging resources caused his arms to fall to his sides. O’Reilly leapt forwards and rammed a knee into his midriff. He jackknifed and O’Reilly, giving himself plenty of room, delivered a right uppercut. The stranger fell backwards and lay spreadeagled near the door. He was out.
Several minutes passed before the fallen warrior came to his senses, to find O’Reilly, now all solicitude, bending over him and wiping his face with a damp towel. ‘Glad to see you awake again,’ said the saloon-keeper. ‘You’re a hell of a scrapper. I’ve licked ‘em all around here, and not one lasted half as long as you did.’
The stranger levered himself upright. ‘Quite a battle,’ he said, grinning wryly. ‘Pity you didn’t get me when I was fresh.’
O’Reilly chuckled. ‘I sure would hate to do that,’ he said. ‘I’d as soon tackle a family o’ wildcats as try you again. Anyway, I ain’t too proud about how it ended. Some might call kneeing you like that a foul move.’
‘Wasn’t the only one, either side,’ the stranger answered, rubbing his jaws. ‘Anyway, nobody said it had to be a fair fight. Now, what time is it?’
‘Later than I thought. Well, you made your point. You have rules an’ I suppose I’ll have to abide by them. When six o’clock comes, I’ll take that drink.’
‘On the house,’ said O’Reilly. ‘Would you like a beer while you’re waitin’?’
* * *