A stranger rides into Laredo and changes everything...
Bet and the Stranger
The stranger who had ridden into town was lean and good-looking. But black embossed leather boots, clinking with spurs drew her attention from his body. She pursed her brow. She did not approve of spurs. A spirited horse never needed them, and why would a good rider not prefer a spirited animal?
The man spit into the street. The dust puffed upwards. Bet looked up to meet his eyes. “A gentleman doesn’t spit where a lady walks,” she snapped at him.
“I ain’t a gent, and you ain’t no lady.”
Bet’s eyes flashed. Before he’d let go of the “y” in lady, she’d drawn her Colt six-shooter. “Want to say that again, stranger?”
His eyes surveyed the gun and then drifted upwards. For a moment they toured her bodice, and then glided higher to her face.
He took a step forward. Bet cocked the trigger. Slowly the stranger raised his hands. “Ok. You got it, lady.”
Bet lowered her gun, uncocked it, and shoved it back into the leather holster she wore slung long on the hips of her trousers. “Care for a drink, stranger?” she asked, ready to forgive him once her point had been made.
The stranger let out a laugh, slapped his hand on his leg, and said, “Sure, why not.”
The two of them walked towards Lenny’s Saloon. One foot of each was on the bottom step when the doors opened and Joey, the town drunk, came stumbling out. “Hey, Bet, you fixxxin’ to have a dwink?” he slurred, attempting to stick a smile on his face, but only managing to half curl the right side of his lips.
“Sure am, Joey, but you go on home. Looks to me like you’ve had yours.”
“Ah, Bet….” Joey clung onto a support beam with two hands, squinting and blinking at the man next to Bet. “Who you swith, there, Kiiit? Isss he shomeone I shshould knooow?”
“Nah, he’s new to town. Go home now, Joey. Go home.”
The stranger and Bet continued up the stairs. He took a step back to let Bet enter, and she pushed the swinging door forward, both her hands occupied for the moment. It was what the stranger’d been waiting for. He swung her off her feet, bent her head back, and plastered his lips to hers.
Bet’s feet kicked like a dog swimming. She tried to win her freedom. She tried to bite… but she could do neither. The stranger’s tongue was pressing down and in before she found her balance. Even then it was too late. Coming up for air, her Colt was suddenly held in his hand, the point of it in her face.
“Think we can have that li’l talk agin’?” the stranger demanded.
Bet heard him cock the chamber of her gun. Surely he wouldn’t shoot her… would he? Her hesitation caused him to send a bullet through her Stetson.
“Darn, you messed up my best hat," she cried out, angrier than a raccoon being held by the tail.
“Reckon so, ma’am, but if it saves your life, I ‘spose it’s worth it. Now, I’m gonna’ tell you jus' one time, and I 'spect you ta' list'n.”
The Colt was closer than before. Bet could smell the heated powder of the prior shot. She held the man’s glance as long as she dared. Then she looked down, ready, for the moment, to hear him out.
“Good. ‘Least you got some sense, woman, and ah’ like your sass. Get ya' clean'd up, ya' might be a looker.”
“Careful, li'l lady, this here six-shooter’s not a bad ‘un, but ah’d hate to mar that silky skin of yours.”
“Say what you’re meaning to say, Mister. But ya’ got no call to mock me.”
The stranger chuckled. “Ah’ got ev’ry call. Ah’s holding the gun, remember? What’s your name, li'l girl -- not that "Bet" name...what’s your real name?”
“I don’t go by nothin’ else. My name’s Bet.”
Once more the gun blasted her dark brown Stetson. Bet let out a yowl, itching to take a look at her hat to see what he’d done to it.
“Darn you, mister." She let out a couple of cuss words to let him know the seriousness of her affront, but the sound of the gun cocking again cooled her temper. “Name's Elizabeth...”
“Good. Now we’re gettin’ somewheres. All right, Elizabeth. Ah warned ya’ that ya’ needed ta list'n, and this is what ya’ need to hear. Don’t ya’ ever pull no gun on me, li'l girl. Not ever. ‘Cause next time it might not be your hat ah’ was shoot'n at.”
Bet leveled a hard kick at the man's shin, but the stranger pulled her closer with his one arm wrapped around her like she was an old Indian blanket he held fast in his grip.
Bet’s struggle against his hold left her almost breathless, but still she managed to spit out, “Ya’ gonna kill me right in my own town, in front of everyone?”
“Don’t push it. Ya’ done drawn a gun. So it'd be self-defense, sweet Elizabeth. And ah’d hate to shoot a pretty li’l lady that ah’d really rather be kissin’.”
Bet tried awfully hard to ignore the gun still pointing at her and the way the gray of the stranger's eyes glinted in the sunlight.
“OK,” she yipped like a she-fox caught in a hunter’s trap. “Will ya’ let me go now?”
His release was almost instant. She dropped down to her feet, stamped a boot in anger, and then whirled around to slam through the saloon’s swinging door. Had anyone of the town's people seen her face, they would have known she was as angry as a rattler knocking its noise-makers together.
The stranger didn’t look too concerned about Bet's temper. He followed behind her, slipping her gun into his belt buckle, he yelled out, “Giv’ me two whiskeys – one fa’ Elizabeth here and one fa’ me.”
Bet turned around and glared knife pricks. “I ain’t drinkin’ with you, Mister.”
The stranger laughed, long and hard. “Ya’ will if ya’ wan’ your Colt back, Elizabeth.”
Bet turned red. She lurched over to the bar, tossed the drink down her throat, and held out her hand for her gun.
The stranger took a step closer.
Bet backed away from the look on his face. “Lenny,” she called out in panic.
Lenny, the bartender, exchanged a look with the stranger. That was all that was needed. The bartender immediately went back to cleaning bottles and ignored his sister’s cry.
Bet got back her six-shooter a little later, but not before she'd had to trade a kiss for it -- one that took away all her arguments and the defiance in her eyes.
The story about what happened to Bet went ‘round the town like a springtime cyclone. Many laughed and said that Bet was deserving of her comeuppance. But there were others who frowned and said that it should have been locals doing the teachin’ -- not some stranger comin’ into town.
Meanwhile, the stranger settled down in the hotel over the saloon. He was a quiet sort, not given to drunkenness or boasting. He didn’t pick fights with anyone. Some supposed he was nothing to worry about, and since no problem's reared their heads, the gossip moved on to other things, leaving Bet and the stranger alone.
But Charlie, owner of the town’s dry goods store, figured it was more than time he called on the stranger. He’d been thinkin’ on it for two weeks and knew he had to take a stand. The truth was that he had an awful yearning for Bet, and he was mighty riled about what had passed betwixt the stranger and her. He was also reckoning that the man couldn’t be all that tough if he only picked on girls.
It was late Saturday afternoon when Charlie finally swaggered into Lenny’s Saloon. The door swung open and wobbled squeakily back and forth a couple of times. It drew all eyes. The gray eyes of the stranger swept over Charlie, and Charlie almost backed up from what he saw in those eyes.
Sometimes it was a look like that which gave a person the chills -- the unexpectedness of it, perhaps -- but more likely, as Charlie's mind did a quick analysis, a look like that was the way a cougar eyed its prey.
But even while the thought of that was settling down inside him, Charlie continued on to the bar and ordered himself a whiskey. He swallowed it in one gulp and then waited for the flush of confidence that usually flowed with such a drink.
Bet was helping her brother Lenny again. She’d been in the saloon almost every day since the stranger came. That wasn’t like Bet. She was usually out riding, huntin' for rabbits and squirrels with the rifle she strapped across her bay mare.
Charlie’s eyes narrowed as he thought about that. The stranger must be stiff competition if Bet was hanging around the saloon that much.
“I hear tell you pulled the gun on our Bet,” Charlie yelled out, looking over his right shoulder so he could glower at the stranger.
“What ya’ doing, Charlie?” Bet said, shaking her head and moving closer to him. She poured Charlie another drink, but he didn’t respond to her words or the whiskey. He was watching the stranger.
Joey lurched haphazardly out of his chair. It fell over backwards. “Thatsss it! You gonnnna takkkke him onnnn?” Joey’s speech was almost incomprehensible. But everyone in the room got the meanin’. The saloon emptied quicker than a drunk’s whiskey bottle.
“You's gotta . . . gotta killll him gooood,” Joey said, before he sank to the floor in his usual afternoon stupor, still clutching the bottle next to his chest.
Lenny rushed to Joey’s side and walked him out of the saloon.
Bet took a step closer to Charlie, then placed her hand on his arm. “Charlie, don’t...” she whispered, trying to catch his eye. But Charlie wouldn’t look at her. He ignored her hand.
Turning to the stranger who was still sipping his drink calmly, Bet called out, “Charlie doesn’t mean anything by it...Please, Brett, don't...”
“This is man’s business, Bet,” Charlie said, removing her hand as if her touch suddenly displeased him. “Get out of the saloon, honey.”
Bet reared back. “No, I won't! You know better than to be issuing orders to me! And you don’t understand, Charlie. You don't understand anything. Brett's...”
“Leave, Elizabeth,” the stranger demanded. His voice whipped the color from Bet’s face. She looked over at him with worried eyes. She wavered a moment, her independence flaring once more.
“Elizabeth, ah, won’t say it agin'.” The stranger's voice chilled the air.
Sheet white, her eyes wide as the bottom of two jiggers, Bet swallowed hard, lifted the bar divider and headed out. As her hand pushed the swinging door, the stranger said, “Don’t go far, Elizabeth. Ah've decided ta' marry ya’ tonight.”
Bet paused a moment to look back. She blinked and stared at him. Words froze in her mouth.
He held her eyes a moment and nodded once, slowly. “Understand me, woman?”
Bet swallowed and nodded back, but still she had no words. However a huge smile had suddenly lit up her face.
“Good. Now go on, Elizabeth,” Brett ordered. Wait outside til I tell ya."
Bet turned around and walked out into the sunshine.
There was no gun fight on the dusty streets of Laredo that day. The two men spent the afternoon playing poker. Some say Charlie let the stranger win the house he owned -- the one overlooking the Rio Grande. Some say Charlie did it intentionally so Bet would have a nice house to live in.
There are men who still grumble about the way Brett came and stole the town beauty from all of them -- especially when they saw her in the long white gown with her hair hanging down her back, and no leather holster with a Colt six-shooter hanging low over her hips...
But nobody has ever heard Bet complain, and the smile she wears is the sunshine on a cloudy day in Loredo.