Just Another Day
by Karlee Keene
It was just another day in just another saloon in just another dust hole of a town.
And he was just another kid.
I took notice of him as soon as he came through the doors. The way he swaggered in, acting like he might've owned the place, and all the while with a look in his eyes that said he wasn't sure he wouldn't get tossed out on his hindquarters for being where he didn't belong.
Kid didn't pause by the door, just headed straight for the bar, ordering a whiskey in a voice that was just a little too loud. Damn kid seemed to be trying to prove, most likely to no one but himself, that he was a man.
Next thing I noticed was the way he wore his gun belt. Slung low on his hips, the way those dime novel writers all seemed to thing it was supposed to be done.
Like them city boys have a clue.
The butt of his gun was well polished, but unless he pulled it out, there wouldn't be any way of really knowing whether he'd come up with the cash for a fancy new iron or had just shone up the one his papa had maybe given him when he was considered old enough to handle one.
The rig was new though, hardly broke in at all.
Just like the boy. God damn, was I ever that young?
I watched him out of the corner of my eye as I worked on my beer.
Kind of a habit of mine, watching folks, though I guess there's plenty who'll tell you that I don't ever see anything but the ladies. Not true though. A man might not live long, if he doesn't know to keep watch on what's going on around him, and who.
So I watched that fool kid gulp that shot, and then fight not to cough and choke as it burned its way down. Pretty sure I saw a tear or two in his eyes though. I found myself shaking my head just a little and holding back on a grin that most likely would've offended the boy. Probably the first taste of whiskey he'd ever had.
If he was smart, and maybe lucky, it might be his last.
Most times, I'd just enjoy the show of a kid trying to pretend he's a man. Damn entertaining, if you ask me. Besides, only way to learn is to do what needs doin' and hope you survive long enough to be really counted one. So yeah, likely I wouldn't have done more than just watched the kid try.
Until HE came in.
That one was no boy. Even if his years had been as few as the kid at the bar, the look in his eyes was that of a man. A hard man that had seen hard truths and was still fighting the battle of living with them.
He wore black, from his hat down to his boots, with the only relief of it being the silver conchas that decorated his belt and holster. The rig melded to his hip and thigh like he'd been born wearing it, and he carried the weight with an easy familiarity that told anyone who cared to look that he knew how to use that gun.
And that he would, willingly, if provoked.
It didn't look like it would take much to provoke him, either.
He entered the saloon like a man who'd learned to be careful where he walked and where he took his ease. Pushed both bat-wing doors open wide to let the bright sunlight split the gloom of the place, knowing that would momentarily blind most of the people inside. And while they were blinking that few seconds of sightlessness away, he slid off to one side and checked the room, and the men in it, out.
Then he moved almost silently around the edge of the room, just a faint jingle from his spurs marking his passage, until he reached the table he wanted. In the back, in a dark corner. With a view of both entrances, the stairs, and even the window onto the street.
A cautious man. He knew enough to keep watch on where a threat might appear and to protect his back. Stuff like that could keep a man alive longer.
He slid into the chair he'd chosen, then sent a look to the barkeep that said to bring a glass and a bottle. After they were provided, he almost seemed to melt into the shadows around him.
Then my attention was drawn back to the boy.
He'd straightened, as if he'd suddenly realized who, or maybe just what, he was looking at. His eyes widened and held a speculative look as he clenched his hand tight and then opened it again. Lord, you could almost hear the gears whirring and clicking as he measured his own skill with a gun against what he saw in that dark gunslinger.
This time, it was a frown I was hiding, not a grin. It was too easy to read in that young boy's eyes, just what he was thinking.
He was thinking that he'd just been given the opportunity of his lifetime. The chance to show everyone that he was grown and worthy of respect and reckoning. He was thinking that he'd just found the way to prove to himself and the rest of his world that he was a man.
I fought back the impulse to grab the kid by his ear and haul him out of there. Much as I wanted to drag him back to his mama and tie him to her apron strings until he really was old enough to tell courage from plain stupidity, I knew that would only make him more determined.
And Lord knows, I wanted to save that boy from himself. Not condemn him to an early grave.
Then I saw it. Just the faintest twitch of his face, and I knew. Knew that the kid had made up his mind and that it was time for me to do something before he made the biggest mistake he'd ever make.
I picked up my mug and turned so I could lean my back against the bar, managing to move a little closer to the boy at the same time, so we were about side-by-side. I could tell he was still watching the gunman, so I took another swallow from the mug and then cut my gaze over to look at him .
"Thinking about making yourself a reputation today, son?" I asked.
He turned then, stiffening his stance. "What's it to you if I am?" he snapped, scowling defiantly.
Let me tell you, I was hard-pressed not to laugh out loud at the look he was giving me. I've been on the receiving end of glares that could sear meat. That pitiful attempt by the kid wouldn't have scared a rabbit back into its hole.
I wasn't trying to rile him, though, so I kept my grin well out of sight and answered him straight and calm. "Ain't nothing to me," I told him. "Just making conversation." Figured a peace offering might go well, so I motioned for the barkeep and added, "Bring a beer for my friend, here."
Nothing like treating a boy as your equal to smooth down young hackles, and I gave him an easy smile as he nodded and accepted the mug, taking a healthy swallow. He handled it better than the whiskey, so I reckon he'd had a few tastes of beer before. Then I waited. He was still watching the shadowy figure in the corner, and I had a feeling he'd be willing to talk about it before he took action, so there was time.
Least I hoped there was. Same as I hoped he'd have sense enough to listen when the time came.
His beer was half gone before he finally spoke. "I figure I can take him," he told me. "I'm fast. Everyone says I'm the fastest draw there's ever been in these parts." He paused and nodded once. "Yeah, I can take him for sure."
I shrugged and took finished the beer in my mug, then signaled for another. "You might be right, I reckon."
The boy's hackles came back up just a little. "You don't think I can take him?" he challenged.
"Guess it doesn't matter much, one way or the other, what I think, son," I replied, shrugging again. "Only thing that's going to matter in the end, is who ends up lying in the dirt."
The kid flinched just a bit, letting me know he was paying attention at least, but I didn't let on that I'd seen it. I let him stew a little on the idea that someone would wind up dead, and it might be him. A good friend of mine says 'contemplation is good for the soul.' Seems he might be right about that.
Before the boy could think too long on it, though, and start convincing himself there was no way he'd wind up being the one falling, I changed the topic a mite. Still watching him watch that gunslinger, I asked, "You got yourself a gal somewhere?"
The reaction was like night and day on the kid's face. "Yeah, I sure do," he replied, with a broad smile.
"That's nice," I replied, taking another sip from my mug. "Nothing like a good woman to give a man a sense of home." Then I paused for a minute before adding, "Course, home's probably not what you're looking for. Marrying and settling down wouldn't be for a fella like you, I reckon."
He answered the unspoken challenge just like I figured he would. "Course I'm gonna marry Anna," he snapped. "Soon as her pa comes around to the idea, we're going to have our own place just outside of town. I'm already building the house," he stated proudly. Then he scowled. "Why would you think that, mister?" he asked. "You shouldn't be supposin' things when you don't even know me."
I let go of another little shrug. "Hell, guess I just figured a smart fella like you wouldn't want to go and be tied down to one place or one woman, not with a reputation for shooting fast and straight. Be too risky, wouldn't it?"
"Too risky?" he echoed.
"Well, yeah," I answered, pressing my point carefully. "After all, soon as a man gets a reputation with a gun, he's got to start protecting it. Make sure no one gets the better of him and takes it away, y'know? Can't build and keep a reputation as a gunslinger if you stay all the time on the ranch, or in some dusty little cow-town. Got to be able to move, follow the other guns, make sure everyone knows you're the best, right? Can't be asking a woman to follow him along the trail from camp to camp or town to town, never having a home of her own, nor no family to watch over her if something happens to her man, don'tcha think?"
The kid's brow furrowed as he thought on that. "Guess I never thought about that," he said slowly.
Taking another swig of my beer, I nodded slightly in the direction of the man sitting at the shadowed table in the corner. "Can see how that might happen. 'Magine he probably didn't think about it at the time he was starting down his road either. Now look what he's got. His name, and the deadly reputation that goes with it, but it's no life I'd want to lead."
I paused and turned back to face the bar, knowing I could still watch the room, the man and the kid in the mirror opposite. "Wonder what it's really like, always knowing that any day, any place, might be one where another fella decides to build on his own name by calling you out. Must be hard, knowing there's no way to turn it down and any man might be the one with a faster hand. And then, of course, there's the one's that don't bother with the calling out part--"
The boy gave me a startled look. Something else he hadn't considered, I guess. "Don't bother?" he repeated.
With a regretful shake of my head and a sorrowful look, I agreed, "Yeah. Seen it happen more than once or twice, matter-of-fact. Some fool who knows he's not really good enough to beat a fast gun, but wants the name he'll get if he takes one out. That kind don't care about shooting from the shadows, or in the back, or without warning. Just wants to be able to say, 'I'm the one that killed him.' Guess he figures that'll get him some sort of respect."
I let loose with a snort of disgust, then. "Generally, from my experience all it gets 'im is dead himself. When someone calls him out, or he finds his back to another damn fool that wants to be the one who shot down the man who shot down the gunslinger."
"Nope. A man like that fella over there, he probably can't ever rest easy. Always has to be watching and waiting. No home or family for him, probably no real friends either. Can't be letting others see he's got any soft spots, after all." I took another swallow of my beer. "Reckon a man like that, he can't even feel safe just growing older. Ain't safe, carrying a reputation and having joints get stiff or eyes get weak. Wrong kind of man comes looking, he don't care if the fight's fair."
"Yeah," I sighed. "That's the trouble with making that kind of reputation, I figure. Once a man's got it, the only way to get rid of it is when they put you in the ground. Like I said, not the kind of life I'd want."
After speaking my piece, I finally let my gaze slide over to look at the kid beside me. It was good to see he was giving that man at the table a different kind of look, one that said maybe being a known gun wasn't the kind of life that he wanted after all. I let the boy have a while to think on it, and all the time I was just praying he'd come to a decision we could BOTH live with for a long time to come.
I got my answer when he drained the last of his beer, set down the empty mug on the bar and turned to look at me.
"Thanks, mister," he said, and I could see he meant it. "I guess it don't matter if I could take him or not, it's just not something I really want to do. Could be there's better things I could be doing with my time."
So I nodded my understanding, and he nodded back before heading outside.
And as I watched him go, I didn't bother trying to hide my smile. Turned out to be a good day, 'cause the way I figured, that boy had just taken a much bigger step toward being a man than he knew. And I thought there was a good chance he just might live long enough to figure it out for himself some day.
I waited a few minutes, then set down my beer mug and made for the door, too. After pausing for a minute before stepping out, to let my eyes adjust to the mid-day sun, I headed out, released my horse's reins from the hitching rail and swung up into my saddle.
It was only a minute before he came to join me, and we headed, side-by-side, west out of town.
"What did you say to him?" he finally asked me.
I shrugged. "Just explained why it wasn't worth it, that's all."
He nodded and then went quiet again. I guess he was probably thinking that what I'd meant was that the slim chance of beating a known gun wasn't worth forever in the grave. It was true enough, but he didn't need to know what I'd really said to the kid. After all, it might not be the life he'd have chosen, if he'd been thinkin' clear when it had been happening, but it was still the life he led now. A man like Chris Larabee, he doesn't want pity . . . just respect.
And maybe a little peace now and then.