Grandma’s tent saloon
A Village With No Name
** 3 **
The small cluster of tents, and makeshift houses of the less fortunate – including a few white families who Gideon had seen when approaching the saloon – sat on a shallow mound among the cottonwood trees overlooking the small village, and the river meandering its way southwest through the foothills to the distant mountains. The smoke that rose into the sky from the stone chimney stacks of the village hung low over the settlement like a haze of bronze-gild. Gideon stood silently on the edge of the mound watching the last of the sun slip below those distant, jagged peaks.
Grandma’s saloon was an old, gray army tent attached to the front of a small pole, stone, and mud building. The scuffed iron roof of the small building leaned away from the tent at a steady slope allowing for the runoff of the heavy showers that come with the seasonal rains from early August until late September. At the opening to the tent stood two large wagon-water-drums, and four scuffed and weathered chairs that looked as though they had once been part of a fine dining-set — now tossed aside from many years of hardware — from a refined, home or some notable enterprise.
Two Chinese men seated at one of the water-drums looked up as Gideon approached. The one with a broken leg offered a nervous smile that pulled his already slanted eyes a little further. “Hel ... lo,” he said in broken English, then turning back to his friend, whose head was neatly bound in a length of white linen cloth, said something in his native language that ended with a sharp nod of their heads.
Guessing they were out of work because of their injuries, Gideon dropped a few coins on top of the wagon-water-drum. Instantly four hands rose to the sky, their heads dropping to a slant of their shoulders but still looking up at Gideon, their faces a beam of delight.
Gideon adjusted his hat as he ducked through the opening to the tent, and beneath an old painted sign that read — ‘No Whites or Mex’ Allowed’ — Gideon ignored it and headed for the bar. The makeshift saloon looked well kept. Fresh sawdust covered the hard, dry earth-floor with a few of the same wagon-water-drums scattered around the saloon, also used as tables, with two wooden benches set at each. The bar was of pine-plank and supported by six tea chests — three in a row and one on top of the other. Behind the counter and perched on what Gideon guessed to be a table covered with a clean patterned cloth, a beer barrel lay on its side with a tap stuffed tightly into the oak at its lowest point. To his left and standing against the outside wall, stood an old doorless cupboard with cheap glass goblets and tin mugs neatly lined in rows along each shelf.
The saloon was empty except for two Chinese men leaning against the bar. Gideon placed his Winchester on the rough, pine countertop, and then removed his hat and placed it beside the rifle. His saddlebag he folded at the center strap and set it down beside both.
There was no one behind the bar to attend to him, so he looked across at the two Chinese men, who eyed him cautiously from the corners of their dark eyes, and lifted his hand to his mouth. “Drink?” he mouthed softly.
One man struck the pine-plank with the base of his tin mug and called out in his native language. An elderly, black woman, who, through time, must have mastered some words of his native language, for she suddenly appeared from behind a curtain hanging at the far end of the counter. For a moment, she looked surprised to see Gideon, but then her expression changed to one of a warm smile. Her face carried the deep lines of old age, but the large round eyes set close together in a small, thin face glowed with wisdom from a long life. Her cheekbones high and pronounced, curved smoothly round to a small but stubby nose that flared at the nostrils, and when she smiled, her teeth shone with good health.
“Didn’t you see the sign hanging out there, Mister?” she asked, wiping her hands on a cloth, then tossing it across her right shoulder she approached Gideon. “Sheriff Watkins won’t be pleased to see you in here.”
“I’m not a customer,” Gideon answered, boasting his best grin. “I’m a guest. Michael invited me over.”
She clicked her tongue, and a little coughed-giggle passed through her throat. “And what name do you go by, Mister?”
“Gideon McGraw,” he told her, then added swiftly in the same breath. “And you must be, Grandma?”
“Well … welcome then, Mr. McGraw. What would you like to drink whiskey or beer?”
“Please, call me, Gideon,” he instructed her kindly. “Michael tells me you keep a barrel of cold beer out back for your special guests?”
“He must have taken a liking to you, Gid …” She started but checked herself harshly with a forceful stub to her big toe against the tea chest at her feet. At the same instant, she drew away from Gideon and placed a quivering hand to her mouth.
Gideon couldn’t help but notice her discomfort and reached out, placing a hard, calloused palm on top of her small, wrinkled hand resting on the countertop. “Good rearing… heh?” He grinned again.
She nodded that thin graying head and the two cheap earrings, made from blue stained glass and rimmed around the rough edges with thin strips of hammered tin, that hung from her small ears, bumped against her long slender neck.
“I grew up in Texas,” she replied in a lean, lenient voice. “Tough, but yes. For the times, I think my mother did the best she could.” Her thin shoulders dropped as she relaxed slightly, but her eyes still held a worried stare. “As children, they forced us to watch men and women whipped for less than calling a white person by their first name.”
“Times have changed,” Gideon answered. He removed his palm from her hand, but his smile remained. “Even in Texas, Grandma.”
“That maybe, but not around here.” She turned from Gideon to the old doorless cupboard standing behind her. “Beer or whiskey?” she asked again.
“I’ll have a cold beer, please.”
She took the tin jug that stood beside the beer barrel, wiped it clean with the cloth that hung from her shoulder, then walked away and disappeared behind the hanging curtain.
When Gideon turned from the bar, he noticed that the tent was filling quickly now. As the men entered, most glanced at Gideon with edgy eyes, then turned away swiftly, not wanting to look directly into his face. It wasn’t the smell of dirty men that filled Gideon’s nostrils, but the smell of good honest men returning from a hard day’s work.
“Haven’t you seen a white man before?” Grandma growled at them when she returned with the jug of cold beer. She set it before Gideon and then took a glass goblet from the shelf and slid it over to him. “Don’t worry about them. Most whites who come up here are looking for trouble. Not often we get a white gentleman in here.”
When Gideon reached for his beer, Grandma beat him to both the glass and the jug. Carefully she poured the beer into the goblet. She must have done it many times before for the cream-white head built slowly on top of the dark, bronze liquid coming to rest just beneath the brim with little air bubbles bursting through the settling foam.
Realizing the trouble he might cause her, Gideon said, “I'd better finish this and go back down to the village.” He swallowed a large amount of the beer and breathed in deeply as the cold liquid settled in his stomach. “I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
“There’s no reason to hurry,” she replied. “No one will come up here tonight after the shooting in the village. I doubt if the sheriff and his men are back yet.”
When Gideon reached into his pocket, she put out her hand to stop him. “No guest in my home as ever paid for his liquor. Now, Gideon,” his name flowed freely this time, and a wide grin appeared on her face pulling the many little wrinkles from her thin dark lips and tightened her philtrum that furrowed deeply up to her nose, “I have a pot filled with pig and potatoes. Are you hungry?”
** 4 **
A clattering sound of pots and pans from behind the curtain made Gideon look up from his dinner. Two venal cowhands burst into the saloon, almost ripping the curtain from its hanging place. One man forced Grandma before him at arm’s length, the fingers of his left hand fastened at the back of her neck. She cowered forward with scrunched shoulders as she stumbled afore him on loose and unsteady legs. The unmerciful force of the man’s grip showed clearly on the old woman’s face.
Gideon was about to call out, to tell the man to release her when a large black man rose from his wooden bench. Gideon estimated him to be at least six-foot-four-inches tall — if not taller — with a thick, solid neck that broadened down to powerful shoulders bulging beneath the cloth of his overall like the rounded curves of many valley mesas — of solid brawn, and muscle. In anger, the giant thrust out his jaw and started for the bar.
“That’s far enough, Jackson!”
Gideon turned instantly to the sound of the commanding voice. Scott, the arrogant young man he had met when entering the village, now stood beneath the tent-flap with a six-inch barrel Smith & Wesson, double-action, held at his hip. His feet wide-set, and his brown leather ankle boots still dusted with the earth of the trail.
“The matter doesn't concern you, Jackson,” Scott went on. “It’s best you sit down and stay out of this.”
Jackson came to an abrupt stop on heavy, flat feet and turned to face Scott. Slowly he raised his right arm bearing a tightly clenched fist. Deliberately he uncoiled his index finger and shook it sternly.
“Damn you, Mister Scott! You get that man to release my Grandma, or I swear —“
“Or what?” Scott scoffed.
“Or I’ll—” Jackson started again, but this time Gideon cut him short.
“Or we’ll make him,” said Gideon. He rose from his bench at the water-barrel and pushed back his unbuttoned duster coat so that both sides slipped behind the handles of his two .45 Colt Peacemakers, “... and I can assure you it won’t be a pretty sight.”
Scott raised the Smith & Wesson and shoved the barrel forcefully across his shoulder. “Didn’t you see the sign?” He didn’t wait for Gideon’s answer. “If you didn’t,” he stopped again and tossed an arrogant glance at Grandma“… then she should have told you. She knows the consequences.”
“I don’t,” said Gideon, “so why don’t you take the time to tell me?”
When Jackson turned his head to look at Gideon, Scott took the advantage and moved swiftly forward. He raised the pistol above his head and then swung it at Jackson’s face. Though his skin glowed like dried polished-leather, it split instantly. The barrel-sight of the Smith & Wesson caught his cheek, digging deep into the flesh, exposing the soft, pink tissue of his under-flesh. Blood gushed down the side of his face dropping from his chin to form little circular stains of reddish-brown as it soaked away into the dry sawdust.
Gideon felt the man’s pain as he reached for the wound in his cheek, but the giant never swayed from the vicious blow. He stood fast, his focus set on the narrow ridge on the nose that separated Scott’s leering green eyes. And by his expression, it took all he had to prevent himself from lashing out with those enormous arms. However, with the barrel of the Smith & Wesson pushed into his belly might have swayed him to think twice.
“That’s the way we do it around here, mister.” Scott stepped back with a disdainful grin, and then reaching forward, he wiped the blood from the barrel on Jackson’s gray overall.
When Gideon started toward Scott, the man with his fingers wrapped around Grandma’s neck, shouted: “Don’t move, stranger!” He pulled Grandma closer, then releasing her neck from his savage hold; he leaned over her forcing her against the counter, her tummy arching to the plane of the pine-planks. Forcefully he took hold of her right hand and held it palm down on the bar. His gun hand he held raised high above his head. “Just one more step, stranger, and I’ll break her knuckles.”
Behind the tears that filled the old woman’s eyes, Gideon saw the terror that reached deep within her and gripped her very soul, but not an imploring word for mercy slipped through her lips.
Gideon didn’t hesitate and pulled both Colts from their holsters. Instantly one roared with a flash of red and orange rope of gunfire, followed closely by the rush of steam mixed with the blue-gray smoke of the after-fire. The man spun away violently as the bullet took him in the wrist of his raised arm. The second shot left a blood-smeared hole in his friend’s shirt. The man choked only once before slumping to the floor dead.
Gideon’s second Colt remained silent, leveled at Scott’s head.
“No, Mister! Don’t do it! They’ll kill my family!”
A woman’s voice, sharp but pleading cut across the makeshift saloon. Some men still halfway out of their seats, clearing a path between Jackson and the bar froze in mid-step.
Sheriff Watkins had appeared at the opening in the tent. At his side stood a fine-looking, middle-aged black woman dressed in a cream tunic with a pale blue house cleaners cap pulled down to her ears. Michael stood at her side, holding her hand.
“Please, mister,” her voice soft and gentle now, but it still carried the tone of pleading. She held out her arm toward Gideon, long, thin fingers widespread and crooked protruding from an upturned hand. “Go away, Mister, please. We look after our own around here.”
Watkins left the young woman standing at the opening and stepped into the saloon. “Are you all right, Butch?” he called to the man holding his wrist, and Butch looked up and nodded.
“He shot Archie in the chest, Sheriff,” Butch mumbled through a skewed mouth that showed the extreme pain that rocked through his wrist.
Masking a stern face, Watkins turned back to where Scott stood in the middle of the saloon. “What the hell is going on up here, Scott? Maggie told me that on her way home, she saw you headed up this way with Butch and Archie. When Michael told her that there might be a white man up here, she returned to town and came straight to my office.”
“Rules are rules, Ben,” Scott responded without shifting his eyes from the tall, dark giant. “My Pa hung that sign out there for a reason, so that’s where it stays.” He looked over Watkins’ shoulder to Gideon. “For his well-being, Ben, someone should teach that drifter to read.”
Ben Watkins ignored that remark and walked over to where Gideon stood, still with his Colt lined at Scott’s head. “Put those guns away, Mister,” he said. “No one will give you any more trouble.” He reached out his hand and placed it on Gideon’s upper arm. “Please, come with me. We need to talk.”
Gideon slipped his two Colts back into their beds. “What about them?” Gideon was referring to Jackson and Grandma, who still supported herself against the bar top. The fine-looking young woman and Michael had moved over to the bar and were now at her side trying to comfort her.
Watkins cleared his throat and leaned in towards Gideon. His voice kept low. “Please, Mister McCraw, come down with me to my office.”
Startled by the sound of his name, Gideon stepped back sharply, his hands dropping to his sides.
There is no need for those,” Watkins told him. “I recognized you the moment I saw you up there on the mesa overlooking the village.”
“Then, I’m guessing I have nothing to lose, do I?”
“Quite the opposite,” Watkins assured him. “You have everything to gain.”
“Maybe,” said Gideon. “But I’m not leaving until you get a doctor up here.”
“These folks look after themselves,” Watkins replied. “Their doctors and herbal medicines are far better than what we have down in the village. Our Doc is a dirty, drunk. Good men have died on his table because of his drinking problem.”
** 5 **