Poke County Tales 1
HARRY LONGSTREET, CHUCKLEBERRY AND WACO YANCY BLACK
A new short story series from Chris Adam-Smith the writer behind ‘The Guitar Man’ .
This is a time travel western story and, before you get all antsy, partner, let me tell you it isn’t full of quantum time theories, wormholes, wobbly atmospheres, aliens and the paradoxes that can give a man a real big-time bellyache. Just a simple enough yarn about Harry Longstreet, a western writer, and his dog Chuckleberry, an overweight retired prison bloodhound. No twenty-page back-story here and, if it were a movie, no twenty-minute build up to weird goings on framed in lightning and electrical storms although, as it is set near the haunted Marfa Hills and there is an electrical storm going on, well, there always is in the West Texas Hill Country…
Harry Longstreet ran out of smokes and Jack Daniels at around one and the same time on a Friday evening. He had plenty of ice and a weekend appetite for both the Camels and the Jack. It was going on for ten o’clock when he finally realised, he could not go the evening without either. One or the other, maybe, but not both. His wide one -storey frame house was set in four acres of hillside with a stream running along its south border – I mention this only because by following the stream and keeping it to his right, he could reach the river and then follow that into Whatnow, the small township three miles or so down the main Poke County highway. This is important only because it was a dark moonless night and he had decided to walk into town thinking the exercise would do him good and, in any case, the old dog also needed a walk as, these days he only chased rabbits noisily and mostly in his dreams.
Harry pulled on his Red Wing work boots and swung into his outdoor three-quarter whipcord topcoat. He checked the last few lines of the western novel he was working on, meaning to give the plot some more thought along the road, and popped his little recording machine into his jacket pocket. He called Chuckleberry to his side and the pair set off for the smokes and the hooch. First, he followed the hardpan drive to the county road by starlight, turned left with the stream on his right and put his best foot forward, the darkness so pitch and the air so still, the night lit only occasionally by the distant Marfa Lights, the crackling dry lighting that rippled and danced along the horizon for several miles before going to ground he knew not where.
About three hundred yards along the blacktopped county road and lit for a moment or two by the lightning, a possum ran from the brush on one side of the road and dived into more brush on the other. Chuckleberry let out a yelp and set off in hot pursuit and no matter how loud Harry shouted and cursed, the dog stayed gone. Harry beat the bushes and called until he was hoarse but the dog did not respond although the possum re-appeared in the next lightning crackle and re-crossed the road again disappearing from whence he had originally appeared.
Now Harry could have gone on into Whatnow, a small township he was familiar with and a popular local resident but, if he had, there would be no need to write this story. However, Chuckleberry was all he had left to show for seven years of a miserable marriage to a woman who had no love for the western genre, jealous of his popularity and one who cleaned him out of cash, the Florida condo and self-respect. She would have taken their dog as well as the money and the only reason she didn’t was because the manipulative lawyer who handled the divorce and whom she subsequently married, was allergic to dogs so, Chuckleberry stayed. Well he stayed until that night encounter with the possum on the county road leading to Whatnow.
Harry couldn’t leave the dog so he set off into the brush, turning left and right, hollering for the dog, cursing the thorns and with only faint starlight, no moon and only the occasional flicker of the Marfa light to guide him he became totally disorientated and lost. After a long and weary hour into the hunt he gave up, pulling his jacket around him he fumbled his way to a flat rock and sat there wanting a cigarette or a Jack that one time more than any other time in forty years as a cigarette smoking bourbon drinking man.
After another long hour or so and having given up on the dog, Harry stumbled back onto the county road, or to where the Poke County Road should have been. He knew that for certain because he could hear the ripple of the creek away to his right and see the occasional glimmer from the water when the dry lightning rolled. The road was there sure enough but the surface was all wrong, pitted and rutted. He thought maybe he had stumbled on to the old county road, the one before they laid the new blacktop but he could not be certain of that. Then several yards on he met the bend in the river where the creek ran down into it and the road was still just a trail. He could see the dim lights of Whatnow ahead and wondered if there had been a power outage, the wires were old and he had seen a lineman’s truck off the highway by the town sign a day or so before.
Italics now as we go into the timeless zone of yesterday…No noise, no sound effects, whirling lights or rolling shadows we are just there, go with that…
Harry Longstreet took out his kerchief and wiped the moisture gathered on his moustache, the mist rising from the river was cold and clinging. The road did not improve and Whatnow did not glow in the dark as it usually did. The street lamps were out or dim and the flashing neon motel signs and the general evening illuminations were out. The out- of-town sprawl was gone even the big Walmart was missing along with other big stores and their parking areas, all Harry had was the south end of Whatnow’s Main Street. Nothing much had ever phased Harry, not ever and after a brief pause, he walked on into what used to be downtown Whatnow but was now just a street of false fronted clapboard buildings some more substantial than others but adobe walls did not a Kentucky Fried Chicken make.
The street lamps were little more than sputtering coal oil burners randomly placed along the sidewalk, a boarded walk fronted by hitching rails and tethered horses. It was a town profile so familiar to Harry Longstreet, he had written about it, described it in great detail many, many times before right down to swinging doors of the Red Dog Saloon in front of him. A place of ill repute way back in the day when Whatnow was nothing more than a two-bit cattle town.
Harry paused by the doors, listening to the sad piano sound of Lorena coming from within, the wail of a deep voiced woman followed by laughter, some coughing. The smell of tobacco smoke drifting out into the night, beer, sweat and cheap whiskey. Then, a gunshot followed by a scream and the unmistakeable odour of black powder smoke swirling out into the stillness. A big man brushed past Harry, batted open the door with a broad shoulder. A yell and another gunshot and the big man staggering back to the swinging doors, dropping dead at Harry Longstreet’s booted feet, rolling over as he fell, the light catching the engraved five-pointed star on his bloody chest.
Harry moved back into the darkness as men came from within and, whispering among themselves they carted the big man down the street. He watched them and wondered. Harry was a western writer and he knew this narrative well, he wanted to be part of it, but part of what? Chuckleberry made up his mind for him, brushing against his leg, tail wagging before crouching beneath the batwing doors and creeping into the Red Dog Saloon. Harry followed, what else could he do but follow?
It was just as he knew it would be. The painted woman, her eye makeup running like a river, weeping in the arms of the fat bartender. The tall gun hawk at the bar dressed in black, all white teeth and smiling, a smoking pistol still in his right hand. He twirled the weapon and dropped it back into the leather. The woman, pretty in her day, a faded paper rose in her dyed red hair, kneeling and petting Chuckleberry, giving him a large bowl of beer. Her actions seemed to anger the man and he drew his gun and told her to stand clear.
‘No damn cur dogs in here.’ He cocked the piece.
‘I would not do that were I you, mister.’ Harry said quietly, adding. ’Heel, boy.’
Reluctantly Chuckleberry moved over to Harry’s side his bloodhound, droopy cheeked jaws awash with beer and saliva.
The man in black stared at him long and hard, his eyes moving from head to toe, noting Harry Longstreet was unarmed. ‘And why would that be?’
‘You hurt my dog I would have to kill you, he’s all I got, my wife took just about everything else but not my dog. So, you go ahead, you want to die, you shoot him.’
‘Big talk for a man without a gun.’
Harry ignored the angry man and walked across to the bar. ‘Whiskey and a beer chaser,’ he said, ‘and do you sell cigarettes in here I haven’t had a smoke all day.’
The bartender looked at the gunman for approval and when he didn’t get it poured a large shot anyway, then he drew a schooner of beer wiped the froth off the top with a wooden paddle and placed the two glasses in front of Harry, dropping a half empty sack of Bull Durham beside them. ‘On the house. Drink and go before he kills you and your mutt.’
‘I believe I will stay,’ Harry said, looking over at the gunfighter. ‘My wife and her two-bit shyster lawyer didn’t scare me so it is very unlikely that our friend over there can.’
The gunfighter stared back. ‘Do you know who I am?’
‘No,’ said Harry, downing the shot and chasing it with the warm beer. ‘I cannot say that I do.’ He turned to the barman. ‘Tell me, who is our dark friend there. The man who shot the sheriff.’
‘He was only a deputy.’ The dark man said.
‘Shot the sheriff reads better.’ Harry said.
The barkeep looked uncomfortable but the weeping woman petting Chuckleberry said quietly; ‘That murdering sonofa- is Yancy Black of Waco.’
‘Yancy Black, how very apt.’ Harry said. ‘The Waco Yancy Black?’
‘You heard of me, stranger?’ Yancy Black asked.
‘Yes, I have heard of you Yancy Black of Waco.’
‘What have you heard?’
It was a gift from Heaven for Harry Longstreet, one of his favourite movie lines, the one he wished above all others that he himself had written. He settled his elbows on the bar and leaned back onto them, dropped his voice to little above a whisper, Alan Ladd in buckskins. ’I heard you’re a low-down Yankee liar’.
The only sound in the Red Dog Saloon at that moment was Chuckleberry slurping up the last of his beer.
Waco Yancy Black stared long and hard at Harry Longstreet a puzzled slightly confused expression on his dark face. ‘Yankee? I’m no goddamned Yankee, I’m Texas born and bred,’ he snarled, reaching for his gun.
‘No, Yancy,’ said the bartender settling a double-barrelled sawed off on the bar top. ‘The man is unarmed.’
‘Then arm the sonofa- or I’ll shoot him and his dog.’
‘Not in here.’ Harry said. ‘Collateral damage, too many people likely to get hurt by stray rounds, meet me in the street, I’ll arm myself, give me five.’
‘Give you five what?’ Yancy said.
Harry sighed. ‘Five minutes, give me five minutes.’
‘You got four,’ Yancy said, and swaggered to the batwings knocking as many drinks and bottles over as he could on his journey to the swinging doors. ‘You got three now.’
Harry turned to the nearest armed man. ‘Give me your gun.’
‘No, sir, I ‘m not going to help you get yourself killed. Run while you still can.’
More men moved clear of him but a young cowboy stepped forward and unstrapped his pistol belt and handed it to Harry. ‘It’s a .44 .40, light on the trigger, reliable, shoots straight, it won’t let you down.’
Harry nodded his thanks, took the belt and swung it around his waist. It was a Hi-Ride holster in stiff leather like the rig he wore at the pistol range in the more familiar Whatnow of tomorrow. He drew the gun and checked the loads just as he had written in dozens of similar scenarios. He dropped the gun into the leather, shifted it a few times and quietly made his way to the door calling Chuckleberry to heel on the way. The dog got to his feet, staggered a little and followed close behind him. ‘You’re drunk,’ said Harry, pushing the doors open and stepping out on the damp early morning sidewalk. Dawn already, he thought to himself, it was midnight only a few minutes ago? He had no idea what was happening to him, it was all a dream. Lightning was still marching the high ground and he could hear the siren sound of the rising wind but that was all. He was there as was Chuckleberry, on the line and lost in a mist of time his planned action untenable to the ordinary man but Harry Longstreet was no ordinary man, he was a western writer.
Harry Longstreet thought about it long and hard staring at the tall man staring back at him across the wide deeply-rutted street, the man’s long black coat pulled back over the tied down holstered Colt, clearing it for the pull. Harry cleared his own holster, unhooking the hammer tab, making sure his jacket would not impede his draw. He could still walk away but walk away from where to when? This is what his whole life had been about – the shootout on Main Street, any Main Street, be it in Dodge City or Laramie, in Laredo, Tombstone or El Paso and countless other towns, it made no difference where it was. He glanced down briefly at Chuckleberry, winked at the dog, stepped clear of the wooden boardwalk, pulled the Colt and fired two quick rounds as he stepped down into the street.
End of italics, time traveller heading back home safe and sound
The noise of the klaxon horn was tumultuous, the roar of the eighteen wheeled Peterbilt engine, a scream from some distant nightmare, the wind of it passing a physical blow, the driver’s voice a whisper on that wind. ‘Watch where you are going you crazy old coot,’ and giving Harry Longstreet the finger as all eighteen wheels rushed past him and he flung himself sideways back onto the hard-paved sidewalk skinning his hand as he broke his fall onto Chuckleberry and rolled clear.
The young Poke County deputy in his best pressed khakis, helped Harry to his feet, he was unsteady for a moment or two and then supported by the youngster’s strong arm he regained his equilibrium smiling at concerned passers-by.
‘You Ok, Mr Longstreet?’ The officer asked politely, concern in his voice.
‘I’m fine thanks, George, I’m just fine.’
‘That was a mighty close call, you need to take better care, sir, we would sure hate to lose you.’
‘No danger of that, George, I was miles away.’ He reached down and patted Chuckleberry on the head. The dog hiccupped and belched noisily.
‘Thinking of a new book I’ll bet. I bet that’s just what you were doing, thinking of your next book.’
‘Something like that, George, but what I really need now is a smoke and a shot.’
‘Here let me help walk you to the Green Frog, Mort will fix you up with a brandy or something. You driving?’
‘No George walking today.’
‘That’s ok then, maybe have a couple.’
The pair walked slowly to the corner bar followed by Chuckleberry and one or two curious onlookers still interested in whatever had happened.
‘Really enjoyed that last book, sir, that gunfighter in the duster he was really something, wasn’t he? Where the hell did you dream him up from. I saw him as a young Lee Marvin, mean as hell. And that cool stranger, I saw him as a young Eastwood. That how you saw it, Mr Longstreet?’
‘No, George, I think I saw the gunfighter more as Lee Van Cleef and the marshal as Glenn Ford, Sam Elliot or maybe even Tom Hanks.’
‘Never thought of Hanks as a western star, too affable but Elliot or Ford would be ok lawmen. Yes, sir, I hear Ford was the fastest gun in Hollywood and he sure enough did sit a horse pretty.’
‘That he did, George, that he did.’
‘Maybe even Tom Selleck.’
‘Yes, Tom would have done just fine.’
‘I suppose back in the day the stranger would have been James Stewart or Randolph Scott?’
‘Jimmy Stewart was too likeable, maybe Scott or Audie Murphy would have cut it.’ Harry said
‘Easier to cast the good guys than the bad guys eh? You ever think of that, Mr. Longstreet?’
The two men walked along the sidewalk chatting in the early morning sunshine.
‘Here we are, sir, step inside out of the sun, it’s going to be a hot one.’
‘Thanks, George, you want to join me for a drink?’
‘I thank you, sir, I would dearly love that but no thanks, I’m on duty.’
At that moment, the radio in unit 17 parked by the kerb crackled into life and the disjointed, tinny voice of the dispatcher requested that Deputy Simmons report to the Walmart parking area where a three-vehicle pileup was blocking the county road into Whatnow. The deputy touched the brim of his campaign hat and ran for the car, jumped in, shifted it into gear and spun away from the kerb doing a U-turn and racing westwards towards the out of town shopping area with siren blaring.
Harry Longstreet drank his Jack slowly while Chuckleberry watched from the doorway. He bought and pocketed a quart bottle and shoved two packs of Camels into his other side pocket then he stared at himself in the long mirror while Mort made him some change from the large silver metal antique cash register at the other end of the bar. He looked good, well, better than ok in his Open Road Stetson the slight curl of the narrow brim slanted down back and front, cool blue eyes crinkled from the sun, pepper and salt beard and drooping moustache. How he wished he had woken up and had made it across Main Street before that Peterbilt had appeared. Then he smiled deep and long as he spotted the white tab of the Bull Durham sack hanging out of his red wool shirt breast pocket. Something to remember the journey by?
Deep in the Whatnow County records office, if one ever cared to look, is a hand-written account of the demise of the killer Yancy Black of Waco, shot twice through the heart by a wayfaring stranger out front of the Red Dog Saloon, now long gone and replaced by the Poke County court house.…
More from Chris Adam-Smith.