THE TRUTH ABOUT SOAPY JOE A short story from John McNally
Now, Soapy Joe was a liar. If you’ve ever come across him then you know exactly what I mean. If you ain’t never met him, why, then you take my word for it or ask some of the others if I’m wrong. We all knew it but he told a decent story most times and he was right good company.
To hear him talk you’d have thought he won the goddamn Mexican war single-handed and killed more gunmen than all of them Texas Rangers put together. He reckoned he could outshoot, outride and lick most any man in the county. He said all that was years ago, when he was a mite younger and raising hell down south somewhere.
He was maybe 40 now, a small man with dark curly hair. He had a full moustache that he was right proud of and he kept running his finger and thumb down it while he talked. He was a thin feller, but had a pot belly like a knot in a piece of string, on account of him always eating pork plates out of the cafe down by the livery. You know he gobbled his grub so fast we always reckoned he could easily lose a finger.
He usually sat with a plug of Red Mountain, chewing tobacco packed in his jaw. His teeth were black like burnt tree stumps. He could spit like a grasshopper; he’d gather up a mouthful and send it flying. A gob of that foul juice caused many an argument in the bar, let me tell you.
Did I mention that we used to meet in the Horse at the End of the Street saloon in Muddy Creek, Baker County? Maybe I forgot… Anyways, that’s where nearly all of us found our way most nights. When I say ‘we’, I mean me, of course, as well as Lim, Quincy, Prentice and Fred, and obviously Soapy. I have no idea why folk called him Soapy. It wasn’t because he was clean, that’s for sure.
Well, one night, I think it was a Tuesday… No, maybe it was the Wednesday, because they served the special on Wednesdays… It don’t really matter none. Anyways, Soapy starts in telling about the time he nearly killed Burdette Fogg down in Clarksville, Red River County.
Now it was hard to keep a straight face most times when he sets off on one, but Burdette Fogg was well known even this far north – well known in a bad way, of course. He must have killed more men than Millie Murdock’s lodging house stew.
Soapy said he’d been passing through Clarksville, played cards and won some good money but he was accused of cheating. Lim said that bit would be true and we all laughed, even Soapy.
Anyway, Soapy said he got out right quick. He sneaked off to the livery to collect his horse. He wasn’t looking for trouble, although it usually found him anyways. One of the fellers who said he cheated was a big man built like the log stockade at Fort Astoria. He didn’t want that sort putting a knot in his head, or worse.
So Soapy’s in the livery saddling up when it suddenly got dark, and when he turned this big feller is stood in the double doorway blocking out all of the light, like a big dark statute. Soapy said he had a voice like thunder that rumbled deep in his barrel chest. This feller says he had a notion that Soapy was a card cheat. He wanted his money back and said he was going to stick Soapy’s head up his horse’s backside. Well he didn’t say backside, but I aim to tell this without cussing, so you figure it.
He said he was Burdette Fogg.
Soapy says he damn well wasn’t no cheat and didn’t believe this feller was Burdette Fogg neither. So, to prove it, Fogg picked up a horseshoe and bent it like it was a piece of liquorice. Next he swung a fist like a lump of rock and punched a hole in the livery wall.
Soapy backed away into the shadows and Fogg – he was sure it was him now – turned to put a hand against the livery door and started to push it closed. Soapy reckoned his acorns were well and truly in the fire.
Soapy stumbled over a pile of tools and he picked up a pitchfork and ran at Fogg with it like a spear. He said this was when it really went belly up. He thought to get the prongs either side of Fogg’s arm and pin him to the door, but he mistimed things and one of the prongs went clean through Fogg’s right forearm and stuck it tight against the door casing like it was nailed to the frame.
Course we was all laughing away by this time.
‘What did you do then?’ says Prentice. ‘Kick the hell out of him?’
No, sir,’ says Soapy. ‘I reckoned I was trapped like a gopher in a rattlesnake burrow. I was on my horse and out of the other door, and got to hell and gone down the road at a fair old clip. The scariest thing was that this Fogg never made a sound, even when I’d pinned him to the livery doorpost. As I rode past he pulled the pitchfork out, broke it across his knee and he looked at me like I was a lump of two cent cheese and not worth bothering with. He never cried out, shouted or cussed. I didn’t get a good look at him in all that time but I just knew he hadn’t felt nothing.’ Soapy looked around us. ‘That was all years ago, but I’ve never gone back and don’t reckon I ever will.’
Now, I’d been in the bar upwards of an hour and never taken any notice of who else was about. I heard someone get up in the corner by the piano, and as he loomed out of the shadows and into the yellowy glare of the lamp, I saw the biggest feller I have ever seen in my life. He must have been 6 foot 5 inches of mountain. He wore a red plaid shirt that looked like it was filled with rocks. This feller padded over real slow like a big grizzly. He was confident, you know, like he’d seen it all and there wasn’t no one to touch him. I’m guessing you’ve figured out who it was already; I know I had.
‘I’m Burdette Fogg.’
He laughed. He was the only one who did, and that made it all the more menacing. It sounded like a pile of boulders rolling down a hillside. The lot of us was struck dumb and we sat like hogs in a hog lot waiting to be slaughtered. You could just tell we was all wracking our brains trying to remember if we’d said anything bad about him and hoping to god we hadn’t.
Next we’re all looking around like we’re searching for the quickest way out. Leastways I was, anyway, and if he hadn’t have been stood right next to me I’d have taken my chances getting to the door and out onto the street.
I’ll tell you a damn queer thing: not two minutes ago we was all sat close to Soapy round the table, but by the time Burdette Fogg trundled over… Well, there was a clear space round Soapy like we didn’t know him. But I hadn’t seen anyone move, it just sort of happened.
Old Soapy sat there pale enough to have had his face whitewashed. He looked like the ghost of a chipmunk, what with that plug of tobacco in his cheek. He was so low in his chair it seemed like his spine had been plucked out; he was trying to push himself down through the seat and out of sight under the table.
I was scared but at the same time I felt excited, like a run of bluetick coonhounds relishing the earthy spectacle of a kill, you know? I felt a mite ashamed as well, though, because I didn’t want no harm to come to Soapy. I’ll be honest: all the same I wasn’t getting in Fogg’s way. That wasn’t going to happen, boy, no matter what he had in mind for Soapy.
Of course I figured Soapy for a liar and cursed him for using Fogg’s name when he could have picked any other but that one.
Fogg towered above us. The smell that rose from his heavy body had the stink of a wet dog. He stood there and rolled the sleeve up on his big, sunburned right arm. It was matted with dark hair, like fur. Just above the wrist he had a puckered pink scar that could easily have been made by the prong of a pitchfork.
‘This was made by the prong of a pitchfork,’ Fogg said.
We all waited and watched in silent fascination while he pushed his sleeve back down. His wrists were thick and ridged with bone.
I risked a look at him from the shadow under the brim of my hat. He had hollowed eyes and big blue jaws that looked as rough as sand. He stared hard at Soapy, one of those searching up and down looks that gets the measure of a man and tears him to shreds. I swear a splinter of lurid light glowed in each of his eyes, like you see in a cougar marking out his prey.
His jaw tightened, his mouth like an ugly black gash. He said, ‘I’ve been looking for you for years. You’re the card cheat who stuck my arm.’ He leaned forward with both hands on the table, his arms like a pair of oak pit props. He stared down at Soapy. You wouldn’t have wanted big, callused hands like that round your throat. Not at any price.
Now, I have to say my guess is that this feller would not be studying to be a doctor or a teacher or anything like that, if you get my drift. I figured him for a natural born halfwit is the truth of it. If his brains were blasting powder, well hell, there wasn’t enough to blow his nose.
I’ll tell you what, though: he whipped a Colt Peacemaker out of his rig with his left hand in the time it takes to blink. He thumbed the hammer back and you could see he was thinking of plugging Soapy – it was there in his eyes and we all saw it. But then he laughed again at something only he knew was funny. He did something fancy with the Colt, you know: it was spinning on his finger, moving through the air and generally flying about, and then it was holstered before your eyes caught up with it. That barrel danced like a magic wand.
Now Soapy was feeling it, all right. He took his hat off and his sodden hair glistened like wet paint. He laid his hat crown down on the table and leaned back in his chair. He normally talked a blue streak but he’d clammed up; nary a word passed his lips. I’ve got to hand it to him here, though: he showed he had some sand, all right. He picked up his drink, drained it and looked over the rim of his glass at Fogg.
‘You know what, mister,’ Fogg says to Soapy, who’s sat with his mouth hanging open, ‘I’m going to do something I should have done years ago.’ I swear we all held our breaths. Then he says ‘I’m going to buy you a drink.’
Boy, I didn’t see that one coming.
Fogg said, ‘You see, you did me a favour all those years ago. I had to learn to handle a gun with my left while my right was messed up. Now I reckon I’m as good with both. Mind you, it took me a year or so to realize that you’d helped me out. Up till then I meant to pull you apart and fry you up in batter.’ He raised his big bushy eyebrows ‘What are you drinking?’
Soapy, he’s got some, all right; he was tougher than I thought. See, he always drinks that local mash that’s cut with burnt sugar and tobacco but he says
‘I’ll have bourbon, please, Burdette. Maybe a Jim Beam, which is what I tend to at this time of day.’
Can you believe that boy? And he went and called him ‘Burdette’, like they spent time in church together.
Fogg brought him the drink over and headed for the door. He stopped suddenly
‘You taught me a lesson I won’t ever forget as well.’
We all waited.
‘Never turn your back on a man with a pitchfork.’ He backed out of the saloon with a stupid grin on his face.
That boy was plumb crazy.
Soapy sat with his chest puffed up like a fighting rooster and a grin on his mug like a jack o’ lantern.
So Soapy told the truth… Well, I’ll be damned. I suppose there’s a first time for everything.
By the way, we heard that the following week Burdette Fogg killed three men in a bar for talking too loud. Soapy always checks who’s in now before he starts on one. Even after all that happened we still don’t believe a goddamn word he says, and I don’t figure he does neither.