It’s another rip-snorter of an evening at the Gulp Gulch Saloon. A few townsfolk amble by, hoping to get an eyeful of debauchery while trying to stay out of sight. A cowboy vomits on the side of the building much to the chagrin of the prostitute giving him a tug. Light pierces the red tinted windows and spills out onto the dusty street. A devil’s invitation.
The inside is a beehive of uneven tables and rickety chairs; each filled with their share of unsavory types. Some scheme, some brag, but most are just trying to drink away the demons of their deeds. Ladies in their evening wear stalk like cats. The bouncer has a nervous twitch. Thankfully, it’s the left side of his handlebar mustache and not the finger he keeps wrapped around the trigger of his double barrel sawn-off. The bartender is his exact opposite (though being twins)–his pencil mustache is as still as his seen-it-all cold eyes. Drinks as stiff as corpses, is his motto. The fella at the piano is named Frenchie, though he’s actually from Spokane. Classically trained. Nut-deep in debt. He envisions the numbers on a till decreasing with every frantic key he smashes with a hailstorm of fingers. Frenchie’s a delusional fucker if he thinks he’s ever gonna leave that piano bench.
“Well? We ain’t got all damn night!” the cutthroat and alleged bovine shagger, Monroe Darby shouts. He’s a lanky piece of rawhide; shifty eyes like coal set in the sun-parched face of an emaciated Doberman. He tries his best to leer menacingly under the brim of his bullet hole-dappled hat (his lucky charm affectionately named Four Leaf Cover). His impatience is directed to the man sitting across the poker table—Jake Masters—who can’t figure if he should focus on the cards or the sweet, jiggling asses of the dancing girls. Jake has a rugged handsomeness and disposition of a blowing leaf.
Or so he’d have you believe…
The other two fellows sitting at the remaining cardinal directions of the card table are weathered malcontents with garments and countenances like dirt covered tumbleweeds. One folded back when the chip stack was half as tall, and the other wishes he did too. Jake’s eyes slink from the shimmy shimmy shake of a particularly plump rump back to his cards.
“Yer call!” Monroe says with more authority than a cow fucker ought to. Allegedly.
Jake lights a cigarillo. The smoke pools under the down-sloping brim of his hat which has no name. His eyes get steely and he cracks a crooked smile around the cigarillo. “Reckon it is,” he says through a gust of smoke. “Up against a serious opponent such as yourself, one might feel inclined to take one’s time, savvy?” Jake looks over Monroe’s shoulder at the skinny, spectral-looking guy in the cheap suit with the bullet hole in his breast pocket. His name is Ross, and Jake is the one who did him in.
“He has a pair of twos and a pair of sixes, Mr. Masters.” Ross states. His voice is gossamer, which is how he was such a successful con artist. Was. Until he tried to swindle Jake out of a few dollars. And his horse. And the only picture of the only gal who ever loved him (which wasn’t his mother because his mother didn’t give a slow tumbling shit about him). Jake pushes his small stack of coins into the modest pile in the center of the table.
“Alright, Monroe, I’ll see and raise. Might as well call, too!” Jake sits back and taps his ashes into the glass ashtray with a wry smile. Monroe looks curious and slightly agitated. The man who had already folded chuckles into his beer. The last fella folds in anger.
“Like runnin’ nekkid through a cornfield backwards! I’m all kinds’a fucked!” grumbles the last fella. “I fold!”
Monroe slaps his cards down with a cocky grin. “Two pair, Jakey-boy! Now, lessee what yer packin’!”
Jake sets his cards down and looks mockingly confused. “Not sure if you mean my cards, or that’s your attempt at wooin’ me… but I got—let’s see—these two that look alike, and these other two that look alike…” There are two sixes next to a jack, and two nines. Jake’s finger taps the jack. “But it’s this card here that befuddles the mind, some.” Monroe is angry. Corn-field-folder slaps the table in surprise.
“Fuck!” exclaims Monroe as he pounds the table.
“Jack’s wild! Bastard’s got a full-fuckin’-house!” Corn Field states, astounded.
“Hurr hurr!” chuckles the early folder, but nobody cares.
Jake pulls the pile of chips close and smiles. The smoke from the cigarillo gets into the face of Ross, who fans it away. “Well, fellas, I think this’ll just about do it,” Jake winks. “Time to take our bow and mosey along.”
“UCK!” Ross says with a wince. Jake stands and tips his hat.
“Best get movin’. I’d say it was a pleasure, but I ain’t much of a liar.”
Ross walks to the bar and clears his throat in the ear of another ghost who is trying to touch a woman’s breasts in vain. The boob-touching ghost looks like a fat and frustrated Yosemite Sam with trench-like marks on his neck (he dangled to death with a rope around his throat, courtesy of Jake, a big tree, and a bounty on his head for forty dollars). “Let’s go, Bill, we’re moving on.” Ross says. Bill slumps his shoulders and exhales a puff of pseudo breath.
“Fine…still can’t get my titty fix anyways!” Bill grumbles with a voice that’s both harsh whisper and garbled growl. Jake exits the saloon and skips his used-up cigarillo down the two plank steps to the ground and follows its ember trail.
He waves his hand in a lackadaisical follow me motion. Ross and Bill plod down the steps after him. “Alright, headin’ out…” Jake says. The handful of folks on the deck shrug or mention that they are devoid of fucks to give. Jake walks down the evening street. Bill and Ross close behind. He lights up another cigarillo and takes a slow drag. A couple walk past, solemn and silent. Behind them the ghost of their dead son follows. We all carry our dead with us, Jake thinks. Be it the shade of a loved one we can’t bear to let go…
“Evenin’, ladies.” Jake tips his hat to the young lady sweeping the deck outside a General Store and the ghost of her grandma sitting in the rocking chair by the door. The young woman looks confused. Granny smiles and waves. …or those who wanna stick around a mite longer.
“Uh, Jake?” Ross says with urgency. “You got–”
“Hey, asshole!” Monroe shouts from behind. Jake stops in his tracks and glares through the cigarillo smoke with smoldering irritation.
Then there’s folks like me…
…who collect them as we go.
Jake turns to face Monroe. They are only three yards apart—too goddamned close for comfort. “You thievin’ son of a bitch!” Monroe booms. Those in proximity begin to instinctively scatter. “Ain’t no way you won all those hands without cheatin’!”
“Walk away, Monroe.” Jake says through clenched teeth.
“Walk away hell!” Monroe shouts. Ross is next to him trying to disarm the situation. Monroe, of course, has no idea he’s even there. “I’m taking my money back from your warm corpse!”
“Hey, that’s not a good idea, sir! Sir! I think–” Ross pleads.
“–Let it be, Ross!” Bill barks as he tries to swipe a bottle of whiskey from a man’s hand. “Ain’t like you ‘kin make a diff’rence anyhow!” Jake and Monroe square off, each ready to slap leather.
“Let’s see you cheat your way outta this!” exclaims Monroe. He swiftly pulls the gun from the holster like a piston on the wheel of a locomotive—smooth and sure. He manages to get the barrel a quarter of the way up before Jake’s gun makes a startling sound. Monroe shudders, clutches his chest. He pulls his palm away and expects to see it covered in blood. A smile creeps along his mouth when he finds that it isn’t. In fact, he’s fully, miraculously, intact. “My turn!” Monroe laughs, raises his hand, aims, and…nothing. His hand is empty—no gun.
“Eyes down, cow fucker.” Jake says, returning to his evening stroll as if nothing happened. Monroe looks down at his body in the dirt with a decent-sized hole in his chest.
Bill throws his arm around Monroe like an old buddy. “Not Hell, but close enough! Welcome to the club, bub!”
“I tried to warn you!” Ross jokingly chastises Monroe.
“Move out!” Jake commands.
Monroe is shaken. He can’t quite parse the gravity of his current situation. “But…what happens now?” he asks. Bill chuckles and playfully punches Monroe’s shoulder. He then turns Monroe’s attention to the solemn procession of phantoms that march obediently on Jake’s command; Scores of Confederate soldiers and First Nation warriors, the charred revenants of the men, women, and children of a settlement whose memory was drowned in whiskey long ago, and throngs of unfortunate crooks, lawmen, ne’er-do-wells, and bastards who couldn’t leave well enough alone. Monroe is now the 101st addition to the Phantom Parade. There is no confetti.
“Now?” Bill guffaws. “Now you get your ass to the back of the line!”
©Peter Hammarberg 2019