The Guitar Man – Part 2
After his brilliant short story series ‘Dogbite’, Chris Adam-Smith has written a new series featuring the adventures of The Guitar Man. The first installment in this four part series can be read here.
Horace Swinton and Me
The last time I played Freshwater Creek in South West Texas it was a sleepy little town barely supporting one saloon then, when the railroad built a spur line for the cattlemen to ship their bawling stock north, it woke up with a bang. Now it was a middle-sized western township large enough to support three saloons one of which was the Old Eagle, the original that gave me my first paid job and it was the one I chose before heading east to join Harry Coen in New Orleans for a season on the river boats.
The Eagle was barely recognisable. Gone was the spit and sawdust bare boarded floor now replaced by polished pine and mostly, the tables and chairs were matching sets and not the busted and much abused assorted sizes of the originals. There was a clear glass mirror the length of the bar and the spittoons were regular cleared by one of the waiters who dodged among the tables on a Saturday night. It also had a small stage area which I avoided happier to be walking among the suited clientele and better for my friend Constance to go around with a hat to boost the meagre fee Jesse Crackenback the owner, still paid me.
Saturday was to be my last night there before handing over to another entertainer and me heading east for the Mississippi. I finished with The Yellow Rose of Texas specially for the local cowhands who regularly gathered there. I liked to catch the looks on their tanned faces when I sang the line from the song as it was ordinally written; ‘She’s the prettiest rose of colour that Texas ever knew…’ and was not the white, golden haired Texas girl they thought her to be. I ordered a cold beer and told the bartender I did not want a head on it. The usual froth took up a third of the glass, Crackenback’s way of making an extra buck. The bartender smiled, drew a pint from the barrel of Lone Star and cut the top off with a wooden spatula. I thanked him and looked around the room, County sheriff, Alf Robinson, always sat alone and you left him that way unless invited. He had an empty seat next to him, saw me looking around and waved me over. I pulled up the chair, set my Martin guitar on the table and took a sip of the beer before pulling the makings from my shirt pocket and rolling a cigarette. I passed him the tobacco but he shook his head and dragged a cheroot out of his jacket pocket and shared a blue topped match with me. He raised his beer glass. ‘Safe journey to you, son.’
Robinson was a mild-mannered man cautious but uncompromisingly fair. If you were in his lock-up you deserved to be there. He was an old school lawman, dressed in black, his weather beaten face was graced with an overly long, tobacco-stained, drooping moustache which, at that particular moment, was dripping froth down his black shirt front, he appeared not to notice and, in the dim light from the oil lamps, it was barely discernible.
‘News travel fast around here.’ I smiled.
‘Used to be a small town, rich with gossip, some things never change. The word is you are heading east to the Mississippi.’
‘My annual trip, joining my partner there, we do well, in fact very well, the steamboats are a joy to work.’
He studied me a moment. ‘They can be rough out there I hear, even river pirates work the upper reaches. You ever carry, son?’
‘Carry?’ I asked puzzled for a moment then, ‘Oh, you mean carry a gun’
He nodded, studying on me some more.
‘Not here but usually on the river I wear a short-barrelled Colt .32 under my arm or a Derringer in my vest pocket.’
‘Pea shooters, no stopping power. You ever have to stop anyone real hard and fast?’
‘No, sir, I honestly have not. I would walk and talk rather than fight, I am still a very peaceful and affable man.’
He smiled, ‘I know. Just wondered is all, we had a visit from a couple of Texas Rangers this morning and I am in lawman mode.’
I raised my glass, emptied it and waved to the waiter. ‘Another, sheriff?’ he nodded and I ordered two more beers again with instructions we wanted them headless. As the waiter walked away, he passed my associate, Constance Rose. She was a handsome, dark skinned girl, black haired with large eyes that could melt a man’s heart. She nodded to Johnson gave him a lovely daughterly smile and handed me a small canvas sack. ‘We did well tonight, boss, I have taken my cut and if I don’t see you before you leave tomorrow, good luck and see you next spring all being well.’ She leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek, turned and we watched to see she was not interfered with or impeded as she weaved her way back through the crowd and out of the swinging batwing doors.
Johnson said, wistfully I thought. ‘Fine young lady, like the daughter I never had. Here is not really the place for her, and too good to associate with you, carting that hat around is hardly becoming.’
I changed the subject. ‘What did the rangers want, not usually this far south if they can avoid it?’
‘Seems someone hit the Fernview Bank and Loan building this morning, got away with five thousand dollars. An amateur by the sound of it. It’s in my county so they asked me to be on the lookout for anything they should know about and now I am asking you to do the same for me. You travel a lot; you hear a lot and you listen; I’ve watched you these past years.’
‘The bank can afford it the way they screw every buck they can out of the farmers and ranchers around these parts. What makes you say he was an amateur?’
‘He could have really cleaned up, the buyers were in town and their money, mostly in cash, was available to him. He simply grabbed a regular five-thousand Fernview sack and fled.’ He got to his feet, the gun on his hip, a rare sight in these enlightened times, jammed under the arm of the chair and came up with him, he cursed and shook it free smiling down at me. ‘Drop by the office in the morning we’ll have one for the road before you go.’
I nodded and watched the crowd part for him, Moses and the river. I finished my beer and made my way to the storeroom in back of the Eagle where I had sacked out for the week saving on hotel money. I packed my warbag and bedroll and carefully placed the guitar in its hard case. I wasn’t tired so I thought a quick turn around town and maybe a goodnight coffee at the Blue Frog Diner, the best coffee shop in town.
Outside the air was warm and still, the clear black sky sparkled like so many diamonds. I looked up at them and wondered which one was the Lone Star of Texas. I took a piss in the alleyway, my mind drifting away, my thoughts following with a long ago remembered song the words to which I could not recall. I failed to see Horace moving out of the flickering lamplit darkness striding purposefully toward me.
Horace Swinton was a sizable Swede immigrant. A gentle man, not overly bright but savvy enough to survive in a world that had not a passing care for him, his happiness or his life in general. He held down three jobs one in the general store another at the livery and he made coffins for the local undertaker. He was a skilled carpenter and his services were needed all too often.
‘Guitar Man, I want a word with you, a bad word.’
I froze. His voice was low, deeply accented almost snarling. We had spoken and laughed together many times over the years and I had never heard him say anything harsh about the town or its occupants. I stepped back into the darkness of the alleyway but he kept coming at me.
‘You’ve been sparking my Constance, me and her is a thing. I seen her kiss you tonight and I’m going to tear your head off.’
‘Hold on there, Horace,’ I said. ‘I’m not sparking Constance, she’s my business partner.’
He stopped as if my raised hand were an adobe wall, staring at me.’ What business?’
‘She goes around with a hat after I sing. Collects the tips, the money, we split it down the middle, sixty forty.’
‘That don’t sound like no middle to me. You’re cheating my girl badly.’
‘Horace, the sixty is my end because I am the performer, she’s my associate and friend, we work the crowd together.’
‘You’re a crook and I always liked you, thought you was straight up, and my friend but you’re as crooked as a woodscrew.’
I was still thinking about that analogy when he stepped forward and swung a meaty fist at me. Now, as I told the sheriff, I am no fighter but riding the river and working the honkytonks and saloons had taught me how to defend myself. As I dodged under the swinging fist, I dug the sap out of my hip pocket. It had been a gift from US Marshall Wally Dade for some help I gave him in tracking down a crew of grifters in Kansas City. It was a flat, unobtrusive slab of lead built into a soft leather pouch. I dodged the second swing and stepping into the gap between us and wrapped one against the side of his head. He staggered but did not fall and came at me again. No more mister nice guy, if he got hold of me, I was likely done for so I sapped him again, harder this time, much harder and right across his nose. I heard it break and he sank to his knees, his eyes crossed and blood poured down his face mingling with tears streaming from his eyes. He stared up at me through bloody fingers. ‘You brode by bucking dose, what’d you do dat por?’
‘You came at me. Horace, you didn’t give me any choice.’
‘But you brode by bucking dose, id hurds dike ‘ell.’
I put the sap back in my hip pocket and helped him to his feet. ‘Let’s get over to the bountain dand clean dup dis bucking dose ob yours.’
‘By are due dalking all bunny?’.
I did not answer him but half carried and half walked his bulk across the street to the new town hall with its ever-running adobe well and fountain out front, refreshed constantly by the cold-water stream that gifted the town its name. I sat him down on the wall and soaked my bandanna in the cold water, cleaned up his face and hands the best I could and made a sort of a compress, telling him to hold it firmly over his broken nose until the bleeding stopped. It was badly broken and would probably be pointing well to the left for the rest of his life. Gathering him up again I took him back across the street to his rooming house, took his keys from his pocket and opened the door. I lit the lamp and settled him in the one chair.
‘I’m real sorry this happened, Horace, but if Constance is your girl then you need to trust her. She is a fine young lady and deserves better, I’ve been told that one time this night already.’
‘I was going to give her better, is why I did something real bad and I don’t know what to do about it.’ He was no longer talking through is nose which had been cleared of blood and snot.
‘What did you do, Horace?’ I asked, fearful of the answer.
He pointed to the bed. ‘Under the pillow.’
I moved the pillows to one side and there I found a canvas money bag clearly marked Fernview National. I unzipped and looked inside it was filled with banded bundles of money mostly tens and fives it looked like.
‘What am going to do? I give it back they will lock me up anyway and I‘ll lose Constance for sure and we were planning on leaving town and…’ His voice trailed off.
‘We’ve been saving our money for two years and she thought we had enough to go.’
‘East, Louisiana, she’s half Creole. I didn’t think we had enough so I robbed the bank, only took the one bag though, honest.’
‘One or ten, Horace, it makes no difference. It was robbery and you will go down for it.’
‘Can you help me give it back? People respect you, you could help me if you wanted.’
‘Shut up, Horace, and let me think.’ He shut up and I thought hard but there was only one chancy solution. ‘Take the bag down to the station early tomorrow morning and dump the bag close by the ticket office. Make sure you are not seen. Likely the bank will be so pleased to get its money back they will not spend too much time tracking down the thief. Can you do that?’
‘If you think it will work I can.’
‘Then do it and good luck to you both.’ I left him there, hoping I was right, but it could go either way and I hoped it went the right way for both of them
Bags all packed I made my way to the station calling in on Sheriff Johnson as promised. He poured me a whisky laced coffee and put his feet up on the clear desk. We toasted and I got to my feet but he hadn’t finished with me yet.
‘Strange thing happened this morning, Station Master found a Fernview Bank money bag on the station. It was pretty well full. Four thousand dollars.’
‘I thought you said they lost five in the heist.’
‘I did, but there was only four thousand in the bag.’
‘You think the thief took what he needed and left the rest?’
‘That or the bank are lying to take a bigger run at their Insurance Company for the money. It has happened and Fernview are not above that sort of thing. Either way they seem happy enough.’
‘I stood up again and this time he did not stop me. ‘I have a train to catch, sheriff, but I will be back next spring and we can share a drink and ponder some more on the contradictions of this old world.’
We shook hands and I left him sitting there, thinking. I saw Horace across the street standing with Constance his Creole sweetheart. His nose was swollen and both his eyes were black. They both waved and I boarded the train as she blew steam and whistled. Was Horace as dumb as most people thought or was he smarter than the rest of us? Maybe the bankers really were after boosting the insurance money or, then again, maybe Horace Swinton was a little sharper than even I thought him to be? Harry Coen would love this little story. I was looking forward to seeing him and that muddy old man river once again, riding his waters for with a song and a dollar or two.