The Guitar Man – Part 5: The Mexican 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.
Part 5: The Mexican and Me
On the outside a troubadour appears to live an easy life. A nice life. A fun life. Honkytonking across the states, free as the wind. Meeting pretty women, ladies who appreciate a good tune played on a fine guitar. No rope burns on your hands, no sore ass cheeks from pounding a saddle all day come rain or come shine, and sometimes all night, for forty dollars and beans. One thing you learn quickly when you start out on the road in this business is that others tend to see you as an easy mark. I play a freelance session; I get to keep all of the money less a small cut for the establishment’s owner but the takings can be a little meagre and you don’t need a ten-gallon hat to collect it. On the other hand, you play under a handshake contract for a given fee, it is a whole lot more secure. But that too has its downside. At the end of the evening, weekend, week or month, come payday the owner is not so keen to dig out the fee agreed on that handshake and that’s why you always send the big guy for the money.
I am not that big guy so working alone it can be difficult but, when hired as a trio, things are a little different, a mite more secure. Harry Coen’s partner, Georgiana has a fine singing voice but, unlike her bulky mother, is slight of stature and Harry, who can sing and play like no one I ever heard before is not a big guy either. But Harry has something else, dressed in black frock coat with a silent kind of dignity, a man to take notice of, a bit like the way those who really know him, say sits upon the narrow shoulders of a man like Wyatt Earp; a lean and, when he has to be, a cold and smiling mean man. I always feel safe with Harry who had travelled far and wide whilst I had confined myself mostly to Maybell County. Safe, that is except when we go south of the border. Then I feel it to be my role in life to protect him from the excesses of border town Mexico, for the sake of both his partner Georgiana and for my own sake. But Harry sometimes gets the urge and the money issue can be persuasive but I always balk against the suggestion.
‘We could do well, Guitar Man, hell Georgy plays a fine fiddle and sings a fine ballad, we three make good music you know that. There are a lot of Americans down there south of Del Rio and they can’t come back so they sure as hell make fellow Americans welcome, nostalgia, I guess. Sentimental for their home on the range but too scared to come visit.’
Harry can be very persuasive but I never gave up without a fight and the memory of the trouble we had on our last visit with both the rurales and the Mexicans was not a good one. For some unknown reason the locals had taken against us and I thought it prudent we stay north of the Rio Grande from then on.
‘I don’t think so, Harry, not ever again. The Americans are ok but those Mex sure rile easy for no reason at all and they have a way of letting you know when you are unwelcome or downright out of favour.’ I looked at Georgiana for support but she just shrugged and went back to her reading. There was only the one oil lamp in our rented cabin and she had priority of the lamp while we had first crack at the only two glasses and the one bottle of whiskey.
Harry hit a couple of chords; he had been having a bit of trouble with on account of what he called a bent string. I had never heard of that before but he was the master and I merely served as his apprentice. He would argue that point but we both knew he of the two of us he was the better stringer.
‘I am not crossing that damn border again, damned near go my throat cut and my head shot off the last time.’
‘You want to live to be a hundred, Mr Guitar Man?’ Harry asked, setting his instrument down and pouring two more shots.
‘As near to it as I can.’
‘You really want to live to be a hundred? Think about it, sitting there with a nicotine stained, long grey beard, a dribbled down shirt front, face all wrinkled, half blind, all deaf, not knowing who anyone is and pissing on your boots. That is of course if you can still get your boots on, get them past those rheumatic and swollen ankles.’
He was laughing at me.
‘You don’t make a hundred sound too attractive do you, Harry.’
It was not a question but he answered it anyway. ‘It isn’t, but Georgy plays a fair trumpet and them Mexicans love a trumpet. And, as for the shooters most of them couldn’t hit a barn door anyway, and we might really clean up so’s we can pass the winter away somewhere warm like California maybe.’
I thought about that. ‘Georgy can really play a trumpet?’ I asked. ‘Since when?’
‘Since I bought one for her yesterday. She’s a natural with any instrument.’
Of course, Harry bested me in that debate and we went to Mexico, crossing the Rio Grande just a little to the south west of Del Rio.
We played the border towns for six weeks and, as usual Harry was right, Georgy and her new trumpet was the edge we needed and we made a lot of money mostly from Americans who could not go home for one reason or another but still longed for Texas and beyond. For our last night we played in a bar called Cantina Rosa, we played long and late to a packed crowd and were happy to see the last man leave just after midnight. Harry and Georgy said goodnight and retired to one of the two small rooms we rented on the floor above but I stayed in the bar with Chico, the owner, and drank freely from the bottle he had placed in front of me with an empty shot glass and those magical words “On the house, compadre.”
I was on my third glass when he walked in. A stout man of about my own age followed closely by three older, well-armed companions. He made his way to the bar but his companions spread themselves around the door and gave me a close and watchful eye. Their leader was not a tall man, more of a Fancy Dan really in tight braided and decorated pants, matching short green jacket and a laced green shirt of similar design. A heavily braided sombrero was hanging down his back from its chin strap. He wore a pearl handled sidearm in a tooled, polished leather holster and his large silver rowelled spurs clanked loudly as he swaggered across the floor towards the bar.
He nodded and bellied up to the bar. Chico was there immediately, placing a glass and a bottle in front of him. He poured himself a drink and studied me some as I did him. He was dark-skinned with flashing white teeth and the obligatory drooping moustache. His eyes were bright like diamonds in the lamplight, his black hair greased back with a single curl at the front to bless his forehead.
He nodded. ‘I listened to you from outside where the air is cooler. You play well, amigo, you and your friends.’ He had a gentle sing song voice.
‘Thanks,’ I said, ‘we make a living.’
He nodded again. ‘Must be hard though playing second fiddle to your partner.’
‘They are not fiddles, senor, they are guitars.’
‘I know that.’ He gave me a large white toothed alligator smile. ‘It is an American saying is all, of course I know what a fiddle is.’ There was suddenly an irritable edge to his voice. I had the distinct feeling he did not like Americans. ‘That guitar of yours is a fine-looking instrument.’
I nodded looking down at the Martin propped in the corner behind me.
‘I came in here to buy it from you for twenty dollars, American gold.’
I shook my head. ‘It’s not for sale.’
He thought about that for a minute. ‘Fifty dollars, Mexican gold.’
‘Not even for a hundred.’ I said, my words a little slurred, the evening’s tequila getting to me.
He laughed. ‘One hundred and one dollars then, that’s my last offer.’
‘Not for all of the money in Mexico, my friend, you could only have that guitar if you ripped it from my cold dead fingers.’
‘That could be arranged, gringo.’ His tone was less friendly but the smile never left his face.
I let my jacket fall open so that he could see I was armed. Something else Harry had taught me. Always let the opposition know you are not a walkover especially in Mexico. He leaned forward a little, examined my holstered Rainmaker snug in its shoulder holster and the smile broadened.
‘A .32 Colt, it’s a peashooter?’
‘I can kill a pea at twenty paces when I am sober and twenty-five when I am drunk.’ I said, laughing my own joke.
‘Impressive. That guitar of yours, it is worth dying for?’
‘You are damned right it is.’ I said. ‘It is very valuable to me. It was given me by a very special lady.’
‘You loved her?’
‘Yes, and still do.’
‘And she left you?’
‘Yes, she did.’ I said. I figured talking was better than fighting and possibly dying so I went along with him.
‘She thought I was too short for her.’ I said.
He stood back. looking me up and down. ‘That must have been some time ago you are now nearly as tall as me.’
I was actually taller than him by a couple of inches but I did not argue the point.
‘Ok, gringo, for love, I let you keep that guitar, I am a passionate man.’ He turned to Chico who had been keeping a watchful eye on us. ‘Chico, you write a song about this meeting for me, give it to the gringo and next time he will sing it for me. Make sure I am taller than him in the song, work that in somewhere.’ He turned back to me. ‘Sadly, now I must leave you, my friend, I am only a few hours ahead of the rurales.’ He offered me his hand, I took it, a firm handshake. He studied my face and the big smile vanished. ‘Your hand is not sweating, that is good, were it to be so, I may have killed you for the fun of it.’
He turned and jingled jangled across the room and out of my life followed closely by his three companions. I heard the sweet sound of metal against metal and Harry Coen stepped out from behind the curtained-off side room, lowering the hammer on his Colt and holstering the weapon. I stared at him, my eyes playing tricks on me, moving the room in slow, very small circles. I clutched at the bar. ‘Here,’ he said gently, ‘let’s get you up to bed.’
‘I liked the, your cold dead hand bit; someone may very well make use of that in the future.’
I grunted again. He wrapped my arm over his shoulder and led me across the room. ‘Thanks for having my back, Harry.’ I mumbled.
‘Always, kid.’ He said. ‘Always.’
‘Kid?’ I said, ’You think perhaps that is what I should be called, the Guitar Kid?’
‘No, el hombre, Guitar Man is just fine, after all you did just face down Pancho Villa and not too many men have tried to do that and lived to sing a song about it.
Read Part 6 here.