The barkeep was short, rotund and nearly bald, wearing a hound’s tooth vest over a crisp white shirt with black armbands. A pair of pince-nez spectacles appeared to be drifting down his nose toward the shot glass he was wiping.
Levi ordered a bourbon, tossed a few buffalo nickels on the bar, and was in no mood for chit-chat.
“We ain’t seen rain in, Lord almighty, almost two months,” the barkeep said, adjusting his spectacles before picking up another glass and wiping it down to a clear shine. “The crops, they’re gone for the season. Longhorns are dyin’ of thirst. Maybe pretty soon the cowhands, too.”
“Yes, it’s a shame,” Levi replied. And it was. He himself, the writer-cum-gentleman farmer, had recently lost a calf to the Great Drought, as they were now beginning to call it. No end in sight to the dust and grime that coated everything with a thin film.
He touched the shot glass to his lips and tested the amber liquid with his tongue, which left a telltale sting on its tip, before downing the contents. In doing so, he involuntarily lowered his head and jutted his chin out as the firewater made its way down his gullet, burning all the way.
“Ya want another, son?”
Levi didn’t want another drink as much as he felt he needed one. He turned toward the four-top table in the corner where he had parked his black Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer with the round white keys. Strange to write in a saloon, he thought. Normally he wrote at the homestead just outside of the hardscrabble town of Last Chance, Texas, but on a whim, he left Molly and the boys that morning, packed his type-writer in a leather satchel, and walked in the tornadoing drought-infused dust toward town.
He needed inspiration. But he needed a drink, too. Maybe that would get the marbles rolling around in his head again. For the first time in his life since Dartmouth College, he was bereft of story ideas and the ability to put them on paper in grand symphonic fashion.
So Levi nodded, and in a moment, the barkeep placed another shot of bourbon on the bar. Levi lightly spun his right forefinger along the rim, one eye on the type-writer. You couldn’t be too careful. Not in a place named Last Chance.
He tugged at his collar, and then his suspenders, his toes curling over and over in his boots.
You’re wasting time, he thought.
“Hey barkeep, ’nother round of beers over here,” came a tough-sounding voice from a table near the other end of the bar.
The voice was unfamiliar. A stranger. The town was full of them, some on their way across the New Mexico and Arizona territories toward California, that land of milk and honey of Biblical proportions. Others, having worn out their welcome in other towns across Texas, used Last Chance either for a new start or a true last chance.
The stranger was neither farmer nor cowhand. Dressed tall in a black shirt and an inky leather riding vest, along with an odd moustache that curled from the top of his lips down the side of his mouth, you might say he looked like a desperado. Which wouldn’t be a surprise. Fellows like him came in off the westward trails to relieve themselves at the local brothel or the lone church on the north edge of town, depending on their beliefs.
Some men believed in nothing.
Levi believed in all the possibilities that the world offered to tell, and sell, his fiction. That’s what they had taught him at Dartmouth; there was only one lesson that loomed larger than how to write—and that was about what to write.
He’d written dozens of short stories that he had sold to periodicals out east, Harper’s, Saturday Evening Post, McClure’s,and the like, all simple tales of life in the vast outlands of western Texas, where the nighttime skies were so bright and filled with stars, Levi felt as if he was Abraham of Genesis fame, unable to count them all.
“Barkeep! More beers!”
Levi looked up again, and he and the stranger made eye contact for a fraction of a moment. His hair was dark and curly, and if Levi was correct, there was a slight scar that began along his high left cheekbone and ran for roughly two inches toward his mouth. With pursed lips, the stranger used his thumb and forefinger to tousle the end of his moustache, and in a moment, his eyebrows united in a menacing posture.
This caused Levi to turn away, and he felt his cheeks redden, partly due to the bourbon. As an author and a part-time gentleman farmer, he wasn’t one to place himself in a compromising position. But still, the stranger looked like a character in a story he hadn’t yet written, one that was begging to allow his personality to be exploited for Levi’s financial gain. If only he could find the words.
There was the type-writer. Perhaps if Levi sat at the table, some inspiration might avail itself to him, and allow him to piece together a story that might be sales-worthy. There was nothing Levi enjoyed more than sharing with Molly and the boys the wonderful news that yet another of his works had been sold.
It had been at least six months since he had been able to say that. Another Great Drought.
Come now, let us reason together, his right brain seemed to be saying to his left. There must be something about which to write. There was an entire wide world within and outside the saloon. Why couldn’t he find the ideas, to say nothing of the words to express them?
Levi threw his right leg over his chair seat and sat down at his table. He stared for a few moments at the white keys of his type-writer and the paper scrolled at the top, imagining he was a professional writer with big, important things to write about. All fiction is a lie. Dartmouth taught him that, too.
He sensed movement in front of him before he heard the clomp-clomping of heavy boots.
Coming here had been a mistake, even in the morning, Levi saw now. The stranger was indeed a desperado, would take or even destroy his type-writer, and then hurt or maybe even kill him. Now Levi could see a six-shooter in a holster on his right side. Easy for his dominant hand to grab.
Forgive me for using coarse language, dear Lord.
“What’re you doing with that machine?” the desperado said with a tone of viciousness in his voice.
Levi took a short breath and thought of Dartmouth and the moment he and Molly met, at a student mixer. She was so beautiful, so…sultry, smoky eyes and perfect creamy skin.
Would he see her again?
“It is a type-writer,” Levi replied, saying nothing more.
“Whaddya use it for?”
“To type words on paper.”
“What kind of words? You gonna write about how I’ve killed six men in four territories, and have a death warrant in two of them?”
“I wasn’t aware of that.”
“You are now, yellow belly.”
That was an insult, designed to provoke. Levi chose not to fall for the bait, and even if he did, he had no means or experience to defend himself.
“I apologize for any miscommunication I’ve caused, sir, and I…”
“You know what I am?” the desperado spat, lifting his dusty, drought-damaged boot on the seat of the chair on the opposite side of the table.
“I’m not sure what you mean, sir.”
At this, the desperado drew his weapon, and spun the chamber.
Probably a Colt Peacemaker, Levi thought. He had heard many a sordid tale about this gun, and incorporated details about it into his stories.
He had never seen one in person.
How can one write about a device one had never seen, especially a widow-maker?
He thought of Molly and Dartmouth again.
“I’m yer nightmare, isn’t that what they call it?” the desperado said. “I’m yer bogey man.
“I’m everything you wish you were, twiddle-poop.”
Another insult, this time homosexual. He leaned forward and placed the weapon on the table and spun it until the barrel pointed at Levi.
“Lemme see that machine of yours.”
Before Levi could consider the ramifications, he replied, “No.”
The word simmered in the air and drifted out the doors of the saloon into the drought-ridden streets of Last Chance. The type-writer had cost Levi twenty-five dollars and had been specially delivered from Boston, a process that took six months.
He wasn’t going to let it go.
“No?” the desperado responded.
“You’re all kinds of wrong, yellow belly. But maybe you’re not yellow. Maybe you’re just a fool.”
Levi’s eyes darted from the desperado toward the bar. The barkeep had ducked behind it and thus did not provide any sort of lifeline. Probably wouldn’t be much help, anyway.
“Lemme see the machine,” the desperado said quietly, picking up the gun and while not pointing it at Levi, he held it in such a way that when he raised it a bullet would find either his chest or his forehead.
Let him examine the type-writer, Levi’s inner monologue screamed.
Think of Molly and the boys.
Instead, Levi fell off the chair to his left, thus shielding him from the gun for a split second. There were two shots that embedded themselves in the wall behind him, but as that was occurring, Levi dove toward the swinging door that led behind the bar.
Apparently the desperado had bumped into the table and howled because it was weighted by the type-writer. That gave Levi the moment he needed to crawl toward the pistol the barkeep had slid toward him on the black-and-white checkered floor that had clearly been mopped to a shine recently.
Levi seized the weapon, cocked the hammer, turned and fired straight and true. The bullet found the desperado’s chest and as it did, the black-clad man fell backwards and fired wildly into the air, toward the ceiling.
Then he disappeared.
Perhaps thirty seconds passed before Levi had the blind courage to step forward and peer over the bar.
The desperado’s eyes were open, but he wasn’t moving. Like his scar, his mouth was a misshapen line, showing no teeth but telltale signs of blood. The wound was in the general area of his heart, which Levi recalled from a human anatomy course at Dartmouth.
He was dead.
Two familiar cowhands, one tall with blondish hair, a blue shirt and a red leather vest, another even taller with a black-and-red plaid shirt and no vest, pulled the desperado up and hauled him away to parts unknown. Probably the old cemetery on the hill behind the church.
That was of no consequence to Levi, who now began to worry about an inquiry from the sheriff.
“Ya need a drink, son?”
The barkeep. The barkeep would vouch for him, and perhaps the two cowhands who had been playing cards with the desperado.
He, Levi, had been the victim of an unprovoked attack by a man with intention to kill. The sheriff would understand. He would secretly be pleased that he didn’t have to deal with more dead bodies scattered throughout the town due to the desperado’s arrogance.
Levi turned to the barkeep.
“Yes, I’d like something to drink,” he said, “preferably water.”
The barkeep frowned and said, “Son, we’re in the middle of a drought. Haven’t seen rain in two months. The best I can give you is this,” and he showed Levi a tumbler not much bigger than a shot glass.
“I’ll take it,” he said, then sat down at his table and began to type.
He didn’t stop until midafternoon, before the town drunks and whores and other menacing strangers began arriving. By that time, he had five sheets of paper covered in words. Words! A beautiful river of ink spots organized to tell a tale of a woman who watched her man go into town, not certain whether he would return, and the violent love they had made when he did. About the child they raised together, in a drought that had lasted for years. All in a strange land called Texas.
“Ya finished finally?” the barkeep said as Levi began to place his type-writer in his leather satchel, securing his papers on the side. Soon, they would be headed to Boston and, hopefully, the rest of the world.
“Yes, I believe I am,” Levi replied, pulling the strap to secure the satchel.
“Can I get ya something for the road?”
Levi thought about it for a moment.
“May I have another glass of water?” he said.