Bourbon and Bullets
By Kevin Gonzalez
Saloon keeper Obadiah Montrose frowned when he heard the familiar crack of gunfire from behind his establishment. Just old Eli Weiss, he thought, testing to see if he was drunk or not. Everyone in the small border burg of Jalisco, Arizona, knew that the senior pistolero was a lush. To test his limits, whenever Weiss polished off a bottle of bourbon – in his case, Old Stagg – he would set the empty on a stub of an old fence pole, back off 25 long paces and try to hit it with his Smith & Wesson revolver. If he busted it with his .45, he continued tippling. But when he started missing, he stopped drinking for the day. Masses of glittering shards of glass that looked like frozen tears attested to both his amount of his drinking and shooting.
Despite his lack of a job, he always had the money for bourbon and bullets. A frugal man, he had saved much of the money he had made in his varying careers throughout the state. The fate of those careers was weighing upon him as he approached his 60th birthday.
True, he had ridden with the U.S. cavalry and even visited Cuba as a Rough Rider. Hah, he thought. Spent more time sick with malaria than I did marching up San Juan Hill.
Already baked brown and leathery by the desert sun, his lean face was further ravaged by age and alcohol. Lack of a proper diet had gaunted him down like a cow trying to subsist on mesquite beans instead of good graze. His well-worn clothes hung on his skinny frame and he had punched more notches to his belt to keep his pants hitched up.
Two small parallel holes on the left-hand side on most of his now-threadbare shirts told about his favorite type of job – peace officer. He had been one of the Arizona rangers, recruited personally by the unit’s first captain, Burton Mossman, back in 1901. But the force had been dismantled in early 1909, despite its efficiency in upholding the law. A sense of betrayal always soured his memories of the time he spent wearing the badge of an Arizona ranger.
With money saved from his salary as a lawman, he tried a different tack – ostrich farming. Women’s fashion demanded the feathers of the bird in the early part of the new century. In fact, one year after the rangers had been disbanded, there were more than 4,000 of the birds in the state, imported all the way from Australia, and their feathers earned their owners more than $1 million.
Damned birds were more ornery than cattle even if they didn’t have horns, he remembered, a wry smile tugging at his lips. Could they kick! But unlike cows, you couldn’t sell their meat. He opened the cylinder of his Smith & Wesson revolver as he reminisced and ejected two half-moon clips that had held six rounds of .45 ACP ammo. The company had made them for American troops in 1917, when there was a shortage of .45 Colt automatics. Weiss liked its compactness and ease of reloading over his old Peacemaker even though it was not as powerful as the frontier six-gun.
There was one similarity between both guns – he had carved mesquite grips for them, each bearing an inscribed Mogen David, the emblem of his faith.
But while he used a gun every day, the same could not be said of his religion. Somewhere along the way, it had stopped being a part of him.
Maybe it was the disillusion and disappointment that had followed the disbanding of the rangers. Or the end of the ostrich farming business toward the end of the war, when the fickle fashion industry switched tastes.
He shook his head. “Esther,” he murmured, pinpointing the real reason. He had met her while on assignment in a long-gone border town. She had been slinging hash in a roadhouse. They had hit it off and married within a month. Esther had been a comforting and consoling partner, patching his hurts when enforcing the law involved knuckles and knees, not cartridges and Colts. No matter what his decision, she had backed her man, without complaint.
And Esther had been one of the hundreds of thousands of casualties who died during the flu epidemic of 1918. He himself had barely survived, wasted and wracked by high fever. In the two years since her death, Weiss often wished he had been able to join her. And after the bottom fell out of his life, he found himself at the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
The thought brought him back to the present. The empty Old Stagg bottle faced him, and he brought up the skinny barrel of the revolver. He had serrated the back of the front sight and reblued it, reducing the glare and making it look big and bold when it was superimposed on a target. With patience and a crocus cloth, he had polished its innards, smoothing the trigger pull.
His right thumb rolled back the hump-backed hammer and his finger began squeezing …
“You know where you really want to put that bullet,” came a voice behind him.
He pivoted, feeling guilty that someone had sneaked up on him, the Smith & Wesson still cocked.
A tall, dark stranger raised both hands in mock surrender. Despite the desert heat, he wore a heavy, black wool suit. The deep shade of a broad brimmed black hat obscured his face, but what little of it showed seemed quite florid.
“I know you?” Habit kept Weiss’s gun trained on the stranger.
The stranger smiled. “Our paths have crossed from time to time, even if you never realized it. But we’re not here to talk about me. The whole town knows you as a pitiable drunk, a former lawman brought down by the bottle. They let you go about this charade, but they have contempt where once you commanded respect. They know about your loss and that’s about the only thing that prevents the local law from putting you in the drunk tank – pure pity.”
“You got a point?”
“You’ve always wished you and Esther could have died together. You’ve got the means to join her right now. It’s in your hands. Literally.”
“What have you got to lose?” asked the stranger. “Pain? That’s something you have every day. But dignity? You’ve traded it for whiskey. Self-respect? Long gone. The love of the people you protected? They feel shame for you, not pride. Like all these bottles you shoot at, you’re just an empty vessel.”
“You think you’re telling me something I don’t know and don’t tell myself a dozen times a day?” sneered Weiss. “I fight it all the time. Maybe you don’t know me as well as you think you do. Frontier Jews are a tough lot. We have to be to survive.
“Ever heard of Sigmund Shlesinger? He was the hero of one of the most violent Indian battles ever to occur on the western plains – The Battle of Beecher Island. Back in 1868, he was part of a band of 50 Indian scouts who fought more than 1,000 Indians – combined tribes of Cheyenne, Ogallala Sioux, Arapahos, Kiowa and Comanche.
“How did Shlesinger become an Indian scout? Simple, an expedition of 50 scouts was needed to go into the field and only 49 were recruited. Shlesinger was desperate for a job and the Army really needed a 50th man. His commanding officer described him like this: ‘He seemed inferior, in all respects unfit for service; a Jew, small with narrow shoulders, sunken chest, quiet manner and pipey voice, with little knowledge of firearms or horsemanship.’
“But after nine days of siege by the Indians, he became a hero. That same officer wrote, ‘The Indian that from dawn to dusk was incautious enough to expose any part of his person within the range of his rifle had no cause to complain of a want of marked attention on the part of that brave and active young Israelite…in fact, he most worthily proved himself a gallant soldier among brave men.’
“Shlesinger is credited with killing and scalping some of the Indians. But nobody believed him as he grew older and this battle grew more obscure. It wasn’t until 1893 when a magazine article written about that battle proved his exploits. In it were some verses about him:
‘When the foe charged on the breastworks,
With madness and despair,
And the bravest souls were tested,
The little Jew was there.’
“And what about Sam Dreben? He came from Russia to avoid serving in the czar’s army. But he sure liked military life here. The man’s fought in the Philippines, China, Mexico and in Europe. They say he faced down Pancho Villa’s bodyguard himself. That’s right. He made Rodolfo Fierro stare down a gun barrel. Most folks thought Fierro was the toughest man in Mexico. On that night, he came in a close second, I guess.
“In France, our government honored Dreben with the Distinguished Service Cross for knocking out four machine gun nests during a battle at St. Etienne. Even the French awarded him the Medaille Militaire, their highest decoration. Damon Runyon’s written a poem about him, called ‘The Fighting Jew.’ Makes for a great nickname, don’t you think?”
Weiss paused for a second, collecting his thoughts. “But courage isn’t just about using guns. It’s about sticking to your guns, no matter what. Solomon Pliskin is the best example I know of someone who fights with words and works, by the daily example he sets in life. Secondhand Sol they call him. Me, I’m glad to call him friend. The only gun he ever used to fight bigotry was made of holiday chocolate. The real weapon was his faith. That’s why he wins his battles.
“So I’m not going to give up living just right now. The only thing I’m going to go without is booze. Starting today,” he vowed.
Weiss looked up, but the stranger had disappeared. The only thing he had left behind was the vague stink of sulphur. Weiss jammed the Smith & Wesson into his sagging waistband and headed back to town.
Man, I must be hallucinating real bad, he thought. He knew where he had to go and what he had to do.
Montrose was so engrossed in a two-week-old San Francisco newspaper that Weiss had to clear his throat twice to get his attention. The saloon keeper looked up and was shocked by the sight: a clean-shaven, if somewhat razor-nicked, visage whose eyes seem to shine with new hope. Weiss had brushed off the worst of the dirt from his old suit and wiped his boots with a damp rag to bring out a slight sheen to the worn leather. He stood ramrod straight, hat in hand, fists massaging the brim.
“You mentioned something about a job last time we met, sir. I turned it down and was rude about it. I owe you an apology and I’ve reconsidered your offer. That is, if the position is still open.”
“Sure.” Montrose eyed him at length, gauging what he saw. “Tell you what, why don’t we seal the deal with a drink?” He brought down a bottle that to Weiss seemed filled with amber light. “On the house. A double OK with you?”
Weiss hesitated, his throat working like a rusty pump. He licked his lips and then shook his head. “Why don’t we just shake hands on it, like men do, sir?” He thrust out his right hand.
“Better yet,” answered the barkeep, glad that Weiss had avoided the trap. After they shook, he said, “I’ve got a spare room out back. Perfect for batching it up. Cheaper, too, than that room in the hotel you’ve been using. It’s yours, if you want it.”
Weiss nodded. “Fine with me. Thanks. You won’t regret hiring me.”
Montrose laughed. “But you may regret taking on this job. I’m a great saloon keeper, but a tough boss. You can start by unloading a couple of dozen crates of Green River whiskey and getting things shipshape for the evening trade. Then there’s clean-up afterwards.”
“Then I’d best get started.”
For the next month, Weiss filled the void left by not drinking with work and reflection. He began reciting his blessings in Hebrew again, spending time in prayer and building up a reservoir of faith from a once-mere trickle.
Weiss replaced his wardrobe one piece at a time at Wickham’s General Store with the meager pay from the saloon. He looked people in the eye when they met him on the street and hoped they had heard about his new direction.
One Saturday morning, on a trip to the store, he heard a commotion from the bank. Gunshots sounded as a speeding Studebaker careened down Main Street. “It’s a hold-up!” someone screamed. “They’re getting away with all our money!”
The crowd prevented a clear shot, so Weiss began running parallel to the car, his hand on his revolver that was stuck in his waistband to keep it from falling.
“Brownie!” yelled 8-year-old Pete Johnston, who had accompanied his mother on a trip to town. The boy’s puppy had run away from him and now cowered in fear in the center of the street. Pete ran out to him, picking him up and consoling the dog as the getaway car bore down upon them. He tripped as he tried to get out of the way of the speeding vehicle.
“Petey!” screamed his mother from the sidewalk. “Run,
With a speed he never knew he possessed, Weiss sprinted toward the boy and his dog. Later he remembered it this way: running, running, running, leaning forward, scooping up the boy and his dog, cradling them with his left arm, his right hand snaking the gun loose from his waistband, the thumb trained by years of shooting a Peacemaker reaching for the hammer, then the big front sight trained on the bandit who was shooting from the passenger side, and the trigger finger pressing, pressing, and BANG! the gunman screams, tires screeching, and he was kneeling now, shielding the boy and his dog with his body, the right arm extending and BANG! and BANG! hitting the car hood, and the cylinder flipping open, a half-moon clip sent flying, another inserted, and then the front sight swinging across the car again, searching for a target, searching and BANG! hearing another scream…
“You can stop shooting. They’re surrendering,” he heard someone say. Weiss then spotted a bloody handkerchief fluttering from the hand of the driver.
That someone was toting a ’97 Winchester and a badge. “The name’s Hank Flowers, by the way. Sheriff Hank Flowers and my thanks to you for that fine shooting.” The tall man gave him a hand up as a panting Weiss lurched to his feet.
The two bank robbers emerged from the crashed car, wobbling with pain and injury. One clutched at the side of his head, scarlet leaking between his fingers while another limped, blood staining the back of his trousers from a hip injury.
Wheezing like a broken accordion, Deputy Eldon Bickle jogged over, his belly drooping over his gun belt. “Looks like he notched the ear of one fellow and shot the other one right smack in the a—,” he began to say.
“Be quiet,” barked the sheriff. “We’ve got women and children present.”
The chastised deputy switched topics. “Hey, old timer, you OK? Not bad shooting for a codger like yourself.”
Weiss was bent over, hands on his knees, wondering all the oxygen had gone. After making sure that Pete and Brownie were all right, he turned to the deputy. “All right enough to go up alongside your head with a gun barrel if you don’t latch onto a set of good manners and stop calling me ‘old timer,’” he growled.
“Hey, he just threatened an officer of the law, sheriff!” gasped the deputy, backing away.
“No, he didn’t,” answered Sheriff Flowers, snatching the badge from the deputy’s shirt front. “Because you just retired.”
“Wait ’til my uncle the mayor hears about this,” sputtered the former deputy.
“You been drawing that phrase like a gun for months,” said Flowers. “Leave right now or I’ll tell your uncle the mayor – who also owns the bank as I recall – that while the man who stopped the crime was shooting it out with bandits, you were trying to impress Emily Wickman with your shiny badge. Vamoose!”
Wayne slunk off in the face of the threat.
Flowers scowled as he watched him backpedal down the street. The sheriff hefted the badge in his hand. “Looks like you’ve got a couple of holes in that shirt that this badge would fit just right,” he observed. “I take it you learned how to shoot fast and straight while you were wearing one.”
“Being good at gunplay came a bit before, actually.” It was as close as he could come to bragging.
“Well, I’ve got a vacancy as of two minutes ago. Care to fill it? Pays better than cleaning out a saloon. Folks tend to respect you more for it, too.”
“I’ve been earning back my self-respect with every push of that broom, so don’t knock it,” grinned Weiss. “But you’re right, toting a badge will get you noticed in a more favorable light. Don’t mind if I do.” He took the badge, pinning it on his shirt with a single, deft motion.
“We’ll see if we can’t get you a decent rig to carry that revolver, for one thing.” Flowers pointed to the grips of Weiss’ Smith & Wesson. “That a carving of a badge you used to carry?”
“No, it’s more like a compass that points true north for my heart and my faith to follow. I was lost for a while, wading in whiskey, but I’ve found my way again. Bourbon and bullets couldn’t save me. Believing in myself again did. And faith. Seems like I forgot my faith, but it didn’t forget me. It was just waiting for me all this time.”
“That’s a story I’d like to hear after we lock up these two yahoos.” Flowers glowered at the cowed would-be bandits and pointed the way to the jail with the muzzle of his shotgun.
“There’s better ones than mine” said Weiss “You ever hear of fellow by the name of Sigmund Shlesinger?” he began as they marched their prisoners to the town jail.