The Old West Watcher by Payton McKevitt

The trickle of whiskey splashing into a cloudy glass somehow always drowns out the noise of all my patrons. In that moment of pouring, I get the tiniest hint of peace. Then I slide it to the drunk that ordered it, and I have to pretend to be invested in his story. Most of the time they just complain about nonsense, and I often forget it as soon as they tell me. But there are a few regulars I like, the ones that I like to call my friends, even though they probably don’t see it that way. They want an actual conversation.

There’s one guy that always stands out. He feels like a storybook hero, a loner trying to help anyone but himself. He comes to town every few weeks and always stops by the saloon when he does. He never tells me his name. Says if I want, I can call him Ranger. He never admits it, but he walks a dark path. I’d imagine he’s some kind of bounty hunter, maybe an outlaw. I always imagined outlaws to be liars, sorta scummy scoundrels. He comes off as a good guy, always smiling and going out of his way to say “hello” to everyone. He tends to avoid eye contact, but otherwise, he’s very polite and respectful. He never complains either; he’s honestly the most conversational of everyone. I suppose that going such a long time between seeing each other gives us a lot to talk about. He’s a good guy, but I feel like there is a lot about him he doesn’t show the world.

My favorite of the regulars is a family man by the name of Dusty. He’s a lot more “real feeling.” He has flaws—he’s not all good. He’s told me he was in the military. I’ve seen him shoot and let’s just say he’s got some talent. He is a good guy, normally pretty reserved. The bottle sadly has a pretty strong hold on him. When he gets boozed up, he gets honest. He’s told me stuff. Out of respect, I won’t go too into detail, that’s stuff I’ll keep between friends. I will admit some of those horrors don’t sound like something a soldier would be a part of. But this town has stayed miles away from war ever since it was founded, so what would I know? He’s a man I can trust. He seems to really love his wife and their son. They lost a daughter just two years ago. He’s always telling me what’s going wrong in his life. He tells a lot, and I think he exaggerates occasionally. I sorta think he likes the pity. He’s a good guy.

Today’s an interesting one though. I ain’t never had Ranger and Dusty in the saloon at the same time until now. Ranger is to the left of me and Dusty to the right. Kinda funny, I’m having a hard time balancing talking to them. They don’t seem to want to talk to one another. I introduced them to one another, but they seem to keep their distance. I get this weird feeling that they know each other.

Saloon doors still sway from his grand entrance
The whole bar enthralled by his mystique
Ranger leans against the bar of solitude
Eyes dart to and from the Dusty drunk
Whiskey burning to both of their cores

I pour Ranger his second glass of whiskey and my mind is calmed. I’m met with his typical politeness and then he places more money on the counter. “How about you pour yourself a drink, friend” Ranger smiles.

That was the first time anyone ever called me that and I felt it to be genuine. We clink our glasses together and then he asks me to tell him something about myself.  Our short conversation is interrupted by Dusty asking for another drink.

“Y’know that man in red over there, the one you just shared a drink with? I knew him once. Let’s just say he and I were in the military. He was…” Dusty chugs his whiskey and places money down on the counter “… an evil man. He did way worse than anything I ever did. He uh, he did bad things.”

“What did he do? He’s kinda quiet about his personal life, but he’s so nice I never figured he’d be a bad man.” I go to pour whiskey into my glass, but he puts his hand over it. He points to his own, not saying a word. “Because he disappears so often, I once wondered if he was some kind of gunslinger. I thought if he was, he was probably a bounty hunter. He seems too nice to be an outlaw.”

“That’s it, he’s an outlaw. We were, er. . . I mean we were both offered to join a gang. Fresh out the military we were asked to run with some train robber. I said no, obviously, but he joined ’em. Last I ever saw the fella.” He hiccups and then pounds his next glass.

I work my way back over to Ranger. “Dusty over there says he knows you. He says you two were in the military together.” I reach to grab the whiskey to pour him another glass.

Ranger gestures that he’s had enough, “I don’t know that man. Maybe he’s too drunk. I’ll have a word with him, try and sort this stuff out.”

I grab a glass and begin wiping it down, attempting to not look obvious while I eavesdrop. The floorboards creak as Ranger shuffles towards Dusty. He places his hand on Dusty’s shoulder and whispers to him. Dusty pauses and inspects his glass. I notice that the bar is so quiet. I feel like I was pouring whiskey. I’m almost relieved to see that I’m not the only person in the bar watching these two. Dusty smashes the glass in Ranger’s face, knocking him to the floor.

“You shouldn’t have came here! I was out of the game!” Dusty towers over ranger. He looks at me with a look of pain, a look I’m familiar with.

Ranger gets up slowly and brushes himself off with his hands. I noticed blood is rushing down his face. I hand him my rag.

“Much obliged, friend.” He wipes his face off. “So, they call you Dusty now? I always liked Charles, it seemed to fit you.” He folds the rag and places it on the counter. “Look, I don’t want to hurt you, I hear you got a family now,” cracking his knuckles, “You were the best of us. I’d like to take you in alive, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done that to a friend.”

“You are a traitor! What would Garrison say if he saw how low you’ve sunk?” He pauses for a second before throwing a clean shot to Ranger’s jaw.

At this point, I begin to realize I knew these men even less than I already thought. Normally, I try to break these kinds of fights up, but I’m frozen. I watch them, my two friends, beat one another. Ranger slams Dusty’s face to the bar. Dusty breaks a chair over Ranger’s head, grapples, punches, kicks. It all seems like a dream. I never expected these two to fight, figured they’d be friends. I begin to come to my senses and dive into the middle trying to break things up. “If you two are gonna fight, take it outside!”

Dusty stands up and seems to calm down. “You’re right…” he puts his hands up, “…this is foolish.” He walks up to Ranger. “Let’s take this outside then?” He grabs Ranger and throws him through the window, then reaches for a knife from his boot and runs outside.

A scuffle in the mud is had. Ranger is using all his might to keep the knife from stabbing him. He throws his knee into Dusty’s crotch. Dusty drops the knife and Ranger picks it up. He stands over Dusty for a moment but then turns to me. He hands me the knife and turns around to see that Dusty is on his feet.

“You always were the fastest hands in Garrison’s group. I’ve been practicing ever since I saw you duel for the first time.” I see a tear roll down Dusty’s cheek. “I’d rather go in dead. I know that’s selfish for my family, but I don’t care. If I’m gonna die today, I wanna be gunned down in a duel by you.” Dusty reveals the revolver on his hip.

Ranger shoots me a polite smile and tips his hat. The smile reverses to a frown as soon as our eye-contact breaks. The only sounds I can hear are the schlop of the mud and the tinking of his spurs. My heart is pounding, and I can feel a bead of sweat trail down my forehead. The closer they get to their positions, the more real everything begins to seem. My eyes water.

The Red Ranger Reached for his Revolver Reluctantly
but the Dusty Devil Drew Daring Death himself
Blasting Bullets Bleed Both Bodies.

They both stand there, almost in disbelief. Both were shot in the stomach. Both were strong enough to stay standing. Ranger looks at his gun and drops it in the mud. The spurs tink as he walks towards Dusty. Ranger holds his arms out almost like he’s expecting a hug. A click of a revolver is paired with another gunshot. Tears cloud my vision, but I can’t keep my eyes off of them.

Ranger falls to his knees. He doesn’t say a word. He just stares at Dusty with a look of regret. The townsfolk are all sitting there watching in horror. Three more shots are fired in quick succession. Ranger is somehow clinging to life. He still hasn’t said or done anything, but I can see he’s still breathing. I can feel that he’s still thinking.

I finally work up the courage to walk to him. Dusty doesn’t seem to care for some reason. I glance at him and see he’s crying. I finally reach Ranger and help him onto his back. There’d be no saving him. He locks eyes with me for the first time. His look shows peace. With a last broken breath, he says, “Finally.”

“Thanks, friend.” I begin to sob. I close his eyes and put coins over them. “Thank you so much, friend.”

I turn around and see Dusty. He’s still got his gun in his hand. “He and I were friends once, brothers even. He was a good man. I’m sorry…” he admires the dusty, rusty revolver, “I’m sorry, friend.” A sixth shot is fired. A second body falls in the mud. Everything is as quiet as a pour of whiskey.