The Guitar Man – Part 3: Harry Coen and Me
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 series can be read here.
Harry Coen and Me
I was settled on the east bound train, mostly it was freighter but there were two passenger cars and the one I was riding only had a scattering of travellers, a couple of farmers and a lone lady with two children in tow. She was reading them a story but they were mainly looking out of the window. The little boy asked if they would see any cowboys and the mother laughed and assured him that they would.
The shining steel rails ran through grassland, miles and miles of lush buffalo grass as far as the eye could see. A hawk circled the field close up to the train before banking off, swooping down and out of sight. Somewhere along our back track the steam engine had disturbed an animal, the hawk sighting a possible lunch was on the move. Here and there cattle were bunched, grazing getting fat on all that nature offered and there is nothing like Texas beef. I was born and raised in the Lone Star State and like all Texicans proud of that fact. A fiercely loyal and independent people, proud of who they are, as was I. It was difficult to imagine what these vast plains were like back before statehood when the buffalo really did roam. A land ruled by the Comanche, another proud and stalwart people who really stood little chance against the onslaught of the white man. I dismissed such thoughts; it never pays to go too far back into the past and think what might have been. All Texans move forward, some slow and some on the charge; a Texan in a fight is never shot in the back whilst running away. It was their way.
As the train slowed at a gradient the engineer pulled the cord and blew hard on the whistle. A lone horseman wearing a long duster, sat a pinto horse beside the track, he was smoking a cigarette, his leg crooked over the saddle horn, his hat pulled low against the strong sunlight. The excited kids waved to him and to their delight he waved back. But in moments he was gone and I wondered again about the future and just how long would it be before such range riders became men of the past.
My thoughts then turned to Harry Coen and our soon to be meeting in New Orleans. Harry was not a Texican, but he could be mistaken for one in both manner and in stature. He was tall, carried his lanky body in a purposeful step, knew where he was going and intended upon being there. He was softly spoken, an eastern accent lacking any of the delights of the Texan’s drawl, as did I. That was what singing does for you, improves both your diction and your hearing.
I first met Harry in a small trailside café close by a giant water tank. An enterprising lady named Sally Anne James had seen it as a business opportunity and built a small café a hundred or so yards from the tank but clearly visible and welcoming to any of the many wayfarers who watered their animals there. I remember it well enough; it was the first and only time then in my life I had witnessed such sudden violence.
I had been pleased to see the Sally Anne’s crude hand-painted sign, I was tired and it had been a long hard ride. I later learned that Sally Anne claimed to be distant relative of the outlaw Jesse James, no one actually believed that but it made for a good story. I dismounted, led my animal to water and after loosening the double Texas cinch, tied him to the hitching rail and hung my cased guitar over the pommel. I wasn’t worried about losing it, Texans would never steal a man’s guitar or his hat.
The inside of the café was poorly lit at that time of the late evening, the oil lamps flickering, their wicks turned low I guessed to save on the coal oil that fired them. There was only one other customer and as I had not seen another horse, I assumed there to be a stable out back of the cafe. The man looked up and nodded. The first thing I noticed about him was his straight back even seated at the low table. He was dressed in a dark tan coloured suit and black high heeled western boots. About my age, twenty-five at that time and handsome in a traditional way. Square jaw, clean shaven, dark haired, lightly tanned complexion and piercing obsidian black eyes. The last thing about him I noted was the uncased guitar hanging on the back of his chair.’
‘What’ll be, mister?’ Sally Anne James came out from behind the heavy curtain that led to the kitchen area. I could smell cooked steak and onions as the curtain flushed it out into the room. She was a slim, red-haired, handsome woman of indeterminate age. Her soft drawl was, unmistakeably, all Southern Texas.
‘A steak, a very well-cooked steak would be good.’ I said.
‘Well-cooked all the way through.’ she said, looking a little surprised. ‘Most folk around here like their steaks still moving.’ She smiled, shrugged and disappeared back behind the curtain.
I looked over at the man and gave him my best, thick moustached grin. He smiled back. ‘She really is something, isn’t she?’ His voice was melodic, pitched low, a little above a whisper.
I nodded. Sally Anne set a place for me and poured me a richly dark and sweet-smelling coffee. Turned away and was back within minutes with a crisp dark steak. ‘That well done enough for you, mister?’
I nodded my approval. ‘Looks nearly just about right, another minute or two wouldn’t have hurt it none.’
‘It was already on fire.’ She turned to the quiet man saying, ’Are you going to play for me tonight, Harry?’
He looked over at me, ‘Okay with you?’
‘Certainly. Couldn’t make me happier.’
He ducked under the strap, fiddled with the tuning for a moment or two, held his ear close to the sound box and, seemingly satisfied, began to play then joining the melody with a soft, sad song about a lonesome broken-hearted cowboy who lost he girl and went bad. It was a sorrowful, familiar and much-loved ballad and ended about the same time as I finished the steak.
He played and sang several such melancholy songs in a deep rich baritone without the usual twang that went with such western songs. ‘Very nice,’ I said. ‘You have a fine voice. Would you mind if I joined in with you?’
Sally Anne gave me an angry, disapproving look but Harry nodded. ‘You have some strings with you?’
‘Out on my saddle.’ I got to my feet and went to my pony then went back inside uncasing my Martin guitar as I walked. I pulled my chair up closer to his, rested my guitar on my lap.
‘Nice strings,’ He said.
‘What’ll it be?’ I asked.
It was a bit of a habit when two musicians first get together for them to play a first-time familiar song. It allowed both to assess the other and I guess I passed that test with both Harry and an appreciative Sally Anne James. We played and sang the evening away, sipping the tequila Sally Anne had placed on the table before us with three glasses, salt and lemon. ‘On the house boys.’
We made great music together that evening, almost perfect harmonies as if we had been playing and singing together all our lives.
That’s about the time it all went wrong.
I can’t give the man a name, I never learned it from Harry Coen or Sally Anne James. If they knew, and I was never sure about that, they did not confide in me. He was nondescript. A big man, unshaven, bushy beard and drooping moustache, middle-aged. simply dressed in crumpled Levis and matching short jacket. His dusty, stained pants were mostly hidden by shotgun chaps. He wore a sidearm as many cowboys still did in those days, mostly for snakes, to hunt small game or put down a hurt animal.
‘Harry Coen, you are one very dead man.’ Was all he said. his voice was surprisingly high-pitched for such a big man. Then, without warning, he pulled the gun and fired it just as Sally Anne and me hit the rough boarded floor. The shots in that enclosed space set my ears ringing and the smell of the black powder smoke stung my eyes.
Harry Coen was far from dead. He was upright, straight of back, a bullet hole in the wall above his head, a smoking .45 two shot nickel-plated Derringer in his right hand. The big gunman was very dead though, one bullet in his chest and a second in his forehead just off from centre, a little to the right of one dark bushy eyebrow.
I got to my feet and helped Sally Anne to hers. She was one tough lady, alone and in the wilderness, I guess she had to be. I was shaking from head to toe but she quickly moved over to the dead man and then looked at the still standing straight-backed Harry Coen. ‘He didn’t like your singing, I guess. You know him?’
For one man who has just taken the life of another, Harry Coen was very relaxed. He ejected the two empty shells and reloaded the shining weapon with a pair of rounds from his vest pocket. ‘Never seen him before in my life.’ Harry said, not looking at her.
‘Neither have I.’ She gave Harry a long look before kneeling down beside the dead man and rummaging through his pockets, getting to her feet with a silver watch and ten silver dollars in her small hand. Harry went outside and returned moments later carrying two saddle bags the contents of which gave no indication as to the man’s identity but did reveal a small leather sack with twenty ten-dollar eagle coins inside. ‘A rich dead man, I wonder where or who the money came from, not something you see every day is it, boys.’
It wasn’t a question. She poured three stiff drinks, one for each of us. We tossed them back and she refilled the glasses. ‘Should we contact the local law?’ I asked, innocently. They both stared at me as if I were a mad man.
‘No law out here. Nearest is fifty miles away if you do not count the odd Texas Ranger who passes by once a year and he has already been and gone. What do you think, Harry?’
‘Up to you, Sally Anne, your place, your call.’
‘I like that, Harry. I say we split the money three ways, set the horse loose and bury him out back with the others.’
‘Others?’ I said.
‘Don’t ask and don’t tell, mister. Let’s get it done and finish that bottle. I have another out back.’
And that’s what we did. We dug a hole where Sally Anne instructed. We wrapped him in his tarpaulin groundsheet as a substitute for a casket and rolled him into the hole hoping he would land face up but if he did not, well, not one of us volunteered to step down into the grave and check.
And that was how I met Harry Coen. We rode south together from Sally Anne’s she waved us goodbye and said she hoped to see us again. She was a sure enough fine lady. From that day on Harry and me often played together in various saloons and bars across South West Texas and then moved to the east coast to work the summer river boats. It was an annual trek and when the season finished, we would split up and go our separate ways for a time before meeting up again usually in Maybell County.
I never mentioned the shooting, but I had a distinct feeling the both he and Sally Anne James knew the dead man and the reason for the unprovoked attack. That was something I would eventually learn from Harry Coen someday, someway further down the line.