Thigh Pains Drifter
by L.T. Fawkes
Little Eustace “Willy” O’Woanty stared out the window, wiped the grime from the window pane, and stared again. He couldn’t believe his eyes. It couldn’t be him. But it was.
“Pa,” he shouted.
He turned toward the back of the tiny dry goods store. “Pa,” he shouted again. “You better come out here.”
“Land o’ Lakes,” his pa yelled. “What is it now, Willie? You know I’m in the back room a tryin’ to get these here burlap bags trimmed so I can . . . ”
“Never mind the bags, Pa. You’ll never guess who jes rode in to town and tied up his horse over in front of the Plug Nickel Saloon.”
Ma O’Woanty pursed her thin, dry lips as she looked up from the penny candy jars she was restocking. “No, I don’t guess he ever will guess, Willie.”
Willie said, “You’re asking me?”
Ma said, “Huh?”
Willie said, “You said you don’t guess he ever will guess will he.”
Ma shook her head sadly. “You’n your Pa are both dumb as cow pies. Who did you see tie up over yonder? Reckon you better jes tell us.”
Willie turned to his ma and swallowed hard. “Bernard the Kid. The famous gunfighter.”
Ma O’Woanty burst out laughing. “Oh, Willie. What would Bernard the Kid be a doin’ here in Vulture Gulch? Next yer a goin’ to tell us someday the Arizony Territory’ll be a state.”
Meanwhile, over in the Plug Nickel . . .
The saloon was crowded, as it was every day during Happy Hour. The tall stranger stood just inside the batwing doors, fingers twitching at his sides, and surveyed the scene. He lifted his left dust-caked boot several inches off the floor, winced, shook his leg briskly, and winced again. Then he repeated the process with the right boot.
The piano player was hard at work. What he lacked in talent he made up for in volume. Men shouted and laughed, girls squealed, and a dog sat near one of the poker tables rubbing his ass on the uneven hardwood floor. He paused every so often to let loose with a long, loud howl.
The stranger was bone-tired. Every orifice was caked with sand. He was saddle-sore and drier than a temperance rally. There was only one thing on his mind.
Squinting into the dim interior, he ran his eyes down along the bar and back again. Men were packed in tight all along it shoulder to shoulder, so he selected two who looked from the back like they had it coming, and shot them.
As it happened, both of them did have it coming, so nobody minded, but a brief silence fell over the large, crowded room.
The Plug Nickel proprietor, Buddy Johnson, yelled, “Ox. Where is that . . . there you are. Oxnard. Drag these bodies out back and toss them on the corpse heap.”
A great lunking oaf who looked at first glance as if he ought to have only one central eye but actually as it turned out had the customary two, grabbed the left ankle of one of the men and the right ankle of the other and dragged them away.
Buddy Johnson signaled to the piano player to get at it. The merry tinkle resumed and was accompanied, almost instantly, by the shouting and laughing and squealing and howling.
Buddy Johnson leaned an elbow on the business side of the bar and smiled at the stranger as he stepped into the sudden gap. “What’ll it be, pardner?”
“Whiskey,” the stranger growled, slapping down a twenty dollar gold piece. “Water back. And leave the bottle.”
“Yessir. But if you are, as I imagine, Bernard the Kid, put your money away. Your whiskey’s on the house.”
The stranger glanced to his right and then to his left. Then he fixed a steady gaze on the man to his right and stared until the man looked over.
The stranger said, “I still don’t have enough elbow room. You look to me like you’ve got it coming, too.”
The man blinked, slammed the remainder of his drink, and made a hasty exit.
The stranger chuckled good-naturedly.
Johnson returned with a whiskey bottle, a shot glass, and a tall glass of water, and poured a careful thimble-full of whiskey into the shot glass.
The stranger glanced at the shot glass, flexed his knees, grimaced, drained the water glass, ignored the shot glass, picked up the whiskey bottle, and guzzled heartily. Eventually slamming the half-empty, or, if you prefer, half-full, whiskey bottle down, the stranger said, “Happens I am Bernard the Kid. Have we met?”
Buddy Johnson said, “No, Sir. Haven’t had the pleasure until this very minute. My name’s Buddy Johnson and I’m pleased to meet you.”
He stuck out a hand and Bernard the Kid shook it.
Buddy Johnson continued, “I recognized you from hearing about your legendary Stepson eleven-gallon hat.”
Bernard the Kid nodded. “In burnt orange, and I got the matching burnt orange chaps, too. I expect you noticed the chaps when I paused in the doorway over yonder.”
Buddy Johnson hadn’t noticed the chaps as a matter of fact, because, standing in the doorway with the late afternoon sun behind him, Bernard the Kid had been nothing more than a leg-shaking shadow. But explaining this seemed like a lot of trouble to go to, so Buddy Johnson just nodded.
Bernard the Kid guzzled the rest of the whiskey bottle’s contents and slammed the bottle down on the bar. Buddy Johnson replaced the empty bottle with a fresh one lickety split.
Bernard the Kid eyed the new bottle. “Is this one free, too?”
Buddy Johnson grinned. “You bet.”
Bernard the Kid frowned. “What’s the catch?”
Buddy Johnson was puzzled. “Catch?”
“What do you want in return for the free whiskey?”
“Oooh. Well, I hadn’t really thought about it . . . how about in return you don’t kill any more of my customers?”
Bernard shook his head in a rueful manner. “Uh uh uh. You saloon keepers.”
“Let me explain something to you. I look around and I think to myself, sure, nobody’s offending me right now. I can promise not to kill any more of this man’s customers. But how do I know that in the next minute somebody won’t become offensive? And here I’ve went and took and promised in advanced not to kill him. Then what do I do?”
Buddy Johnson nodded. “Point well taken. Okay, how about this? Promise not to kill me . . . and I assure you I would never knowingly do anything to offend you the least little bit. Not only that, but if at some time in the future I should inadvertently offend you, I would apologize sincerely the second you made me aware of my mistake.”
Bernard the Kid nodded. “That seems reasonable. Anything else?”
“Do you want anything else in return for the free whiskey?”
“Oh, I see. Well . . . yes. See that little redhead over there leaning on the piany?”
“I see a red head, but she don’t look all that little.”
“Okay, that nice big red-headed gal.”
“The one with the feathers? I see her.”
Buddy Johnson nodded. “Don’t shoot her, neither. She’s my favorite little gal, and that’s a easy promise because she ain’t never done nothing to offend nobody except maybe the ladies from the church. You promise not to shoot me and not to shoot that little red-headed gal and your bill’s paid in full.”
Bernard nodded, and as he did so, he shifted his weight and winced again.
Buddy Johnson noticed the gunman’s grimace.
“You okay there, Bernard?”
Bernard grimaced again and took a mighty slug from the fresh bottle. “I’m as stiff and sore as a . . . as a . . . well, I’m plenty stiff and sore. I been in the saddle too long. My legs is numb and I got the shooting pains all up and down, and that’s a plain fact.”
“What you want . . . ” said Buddy Johnson “ . . . is a good long soak in a good hot tub.”
Bernard the Kid nodded. “When you’re right, you’re right. Where does a man go to get a good hot bath around here?”
“Look no further. Ox. Hey, Oxnard.”
The big oaf stuck his head around the corner from the back hallway.
“Start heating up some water. Got a man here needs a good long soak.”
Bernard smiled. “Well, now, that’s right nice of you, Buddy.”
Before long the tub was full of steaming water. Buddy Johnson himself led Bernard the Kid up to the best room in the house. It was the room Buddy Johnson liked to call the Presidential Suite, even though chances were slim to none that a president of anything would ever get anywhere near Vulture Gulch, much less that particular room in the Plug Nickel Saloon.
He made sure the famous gunfighter had everything he might need for a pleasant and relaxing bath, and then he departed and left the aching man to it.
Bernard the Kid set his half-finished whiskey bottle and the unopened spare whiskey bottle on the old, scarred dresser. He set his trademark burnt orange eleven-gallon Stepson hat next to them. Then he began to peel off his dusty, sweaty clothes.
And he had just stepped out of his filthy pants, thus becoming naked as a jay bird, when the door suddenly opened and a young boy stepped into the room.
“Holy cow, Mr. Kid,” the young boy exclaimed. “I told my ma it was you and she didn’t believe me. But it is you. Gee-munee.”
Bernard the Kid wasn’t the shy retiring type – not by a long shot – but he knew enough to know it’s wrong for young boys to walk in on a man when the man’s naked and getting ready to ease his aching body into a steaming tub. And he was just gathering his thoughts to express them aloud when the boy continued.
“Look, Mr. Kid. I brung you some penny candy.” The kid began emptying his bulging pockets. “I’ll just set them right here next to your famous hat, okay?”
Bernard the Kid said, “Look here, boy . . . ”
“A lot of it’s just pulled taffy, but it’s pretty good. Mr. Kid, you used to be my third favoritest hero, but now I get to see you in person, I’m making you my first favoritest. Jesse James’ll slide on down to second and Wyatt Earp’ll take third place where you used to be.”
“Boy. Didn’t your Ma teach you . . . ”
“There,” the boy said, dumping the last few pieces of candy onto the dresser top. “That’s all of it. Tarnation. I can’t hardly believe – hey. Mr. Kid. What’s that line around your middle?”
Bernard the Kid blinked at the boy. “Huh?”
“That line . . . ” The boy pointed in the general direction of Bernard the Kid’s waistline. “Right there. And look. There’s another one around each of your legs right above your knees. And hey. There’s another one down around boot-top territory.”
Bernard the Kid bent forward to see what the boy was talking about and the movement caused another wave of acute pain. He winced. “Oh. Those. I guess that’s from where I tie on my famous trademark burnt orange chaps.”
The boy nodded wisely. “The ones that match your famous hat. But listen here, Mr. Kid. Those lines . . . are your legs hurtin’ you bad? Are they numb-like, and pains all shootin’ up and down?”
“Why . . . ” said Bernard the Kid “ . . . yes. How did you know?”
A slow knowing smile spread across the boy’s face. “Let me tell you a little story. A few years ago, my ma . . . ”
Bernard the Kid interrupted. “Speaking of your ma, does she know you’re here? Starin’ at the indentations on a famous gunfighters nether regions?”
The boy paled. “Oh, golly no. I snecked away when she weren’t lookin’. And don’t you tell her, neither. She’d skin me alive if she knew. Now where was I? Oh, yeah. A few years ago, she started getting bad pains in her legs ever Sunday. She called ‘em her church pains. Her legs’d go numb and it got so she couldn’t hardly walk for the pains Sunday nights and the next few days after.”
Bernard the Kid became interested in spite of his annoyance. “That sounds like what I’ve got.”
The boy nodded. “It got worser and worser. And then finally she figgered it out. My ma’s a figgerin’ out kind of person.”
Bernard the Kid nodded. He’d known a few figgerin’ out kinds of ladies in his time. “Well, what was the answer?”
“She’d been puttin’ on weight over the years. But ever Sunday she kept on wearing her special Sunday stockin’s. She sets a lot of store by them stockin’s.”
Bernard the Kid nodded. He knew how certain ladies get pretty attached to their special stockin’s.
“Well Sir? Ma’s legs kept getting bigger and bigger, but those Sunday stockin’s stretched to a certain extent and then they got to a point where they didn’t have any more give. They was just plain too tight. They cut off her legs from circulatin’. And she finally figgered out that’s what was miscomfortin’ her. Once’t she quit squeezin’ her legs into those Sunday stockin’s, the pains went away.”
Bernard the Kid weighed this information. “Well, I’m happy for your ma, but what’s that got to do with me? I ain’t wearin’ no tight stockin’s.”
The boy said, “No, Sir, you ain’t. But you’re wearin’ your trademark burnt orange chaps.”
“Oh, now you jes hold on,” Bernard the Kid cried. “You ain’t ever a tellin’ me I got to give up my special trademark burnt orange chaps as matches my special trademark burnt orange eleven gallon Stepson hat.”
“No,” cried the boy. “You oughn’t never to give up your trademark burnt orange gear. All you got to do is, you got to stop tying them chaps on so tight.”