Spoiling For A Fight

L.Q. Jones in a classic morality Gunsmoke episode played a remarkably level headed cowboy whose quiet campfire dinner was interrupted by a black hat demanding a plate of beans. L.Q. was one of many quintessential character actors that were making the rounds at the time, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens and Walter Brennan all cycled through the oaters that were popular on every channel. L.Q. had been willing to share his beans but the bad guy was leaning on him mighty hard and LQ had the horse sense to figure that a plate of beans wasn’t worth his hide. Nor did LQ do much more than step aside when the villain decided to ride off on Mr. Jones’ horse and with his saddle, if memory serves. Mr. Jones was able to pull off this profound concession without looking weak, foolish or losing his dignity. Later we see him walking into town,  foot weary, but still strong where he reports the event to the marshal. In the end of course, Matt Dillon set things straight, forcing the outlaw to point his toes skyward, and LQ was able to lope off into the sunset, honest and unscathed. He years afterwards played the flashy western wear Nevada state gambling commissioner  in the modern gangster movie, Casino. We like L.Q. Jones, he was true to form. Same way we like Ben Johnson, Walter Brennan and Slim Pickens, who were all authentic and knew when to just let things go by and when to stand their ground.

Somewhere along the line, in every western,  someone is going to knock a chip off someone’s shoulder and start a barstool busting, mirror breaking, saloon door crashing, bottle over the head all out melee. Someone will strut right down the middle of the boardwalk elbowing cowhands, farmers and even ladies, children and dogs outta their way. Someone in a too slick gamblers derby is going to enforce the dirty winning hand he dealt himself with a pearl handled thirty two. And Albert knew it. Albert wasn’t about to go blustering and daring and drawing lines and forcing his hand and standing in the middle of the street twitching his trigger finger. Albert tried to stay inconspicuous. It was Albert’s job to scrub the spittoons, sweep, mop and scrape the mud and dirt off the bar floor, polish the brass work and generally stay out of everyone’s way. He wasn’t allowed behind the bar, not because he might drain a little off a bottle now and then, like Willy and Sherman, but because he just couldn’t seem to watch both ends of the mop at the same time and if the handle wasn’t knocking glasses off the shelf the wet mop head was tripping up the bartenders and sloshing scummy water over Willy or Sherman’s expensive boots. Willy and Sherman ran a tight ship in a loose town. They were conscious of appearances. Both wore gartered shirtsleeves while at work behind the bar, it was requisite, but when not serving amber toxins or operating the fancy taps they would don dapper silk waistcoats and tails and walk about town, proud as peacocks. Willy did the bulk of the back bar work, so his hands were the coarser, and Sherman handled the business affairs. Albert was one of the many sacrifices they made doing business this far west, the rather homely stable of saloon girls, whose names they could never seem to keep track of as they came and went so frequently was another. Honor, the fattest of them they could understand the attractions of, but the boney, raw others did so little business they could scarcely justify allowing a room. At present their entire staff consisted of themselves, Honor, Caleb, a capable one legged veteran of the war that worked the hoot owl shift, an indian woman who would cook a little when there was no call for her, a plump mexican girl who served in the same capacity,  two transient women and Albert, who had come with the place. Albert was but a boy when Willy and Sherman had bought the building from his dying father, it was a remnant of a stable on the same block where the new brick bank was being built and they had hired him to tear down his own room, which was where the tack and grain had been stored. The rest of the stable, which was no more than a couple of rail fences and stalls fell apart  for bracing as the carpenters began the new two story bar. He was still a gangly boy at the time this tale takes place.

Albert was happy to be able to eat something now and then. His father hadn’t helped out much in that way, the stable business foundered early, as had the dreams of a rich mine, a thriving farm and a life as a travelling pot mender. Albert’s father was no tinsmith, only scratched in the earth for a couple of feet looking at every rock and wondering why it looked like every other rock as he scratched away at the earth just as he’d done as a farmer, wondering why no rich green crops sprung forth. Albert’s father had been a good man, and a lively dancer at the infrequent hoe downs where his troubles seemed to fly from him and his broad smile would lift skyward lost in even the poor music of a three stringed fiddle and a washboard. He had shared all he had had with Albert, and died of consumption before his life could turn around. The money paid for the stable had barely put him in the ground. Albert had absorbed his father’s love of watching the clouds drift through the sky and the leaves flutter in the wind. As a boy it was one of the few pleasures afforded him. Albert could not dance, but knew what it was.  Albert did dance, to his own and to actual music, but it was painful to watch, In his heart it was dancing, and free, but it sure didn’t look like it. Someone who truly knew dancing might have seen it, but it would take some doing, and more than one look see. Albert was in fact fated to live his whole life as he danced.

Willy was washing glasses, there was time, he wasn’t doing a very good job of it, and Sherman was getting things in order. Either that night or the next not one but three groups of drovers were supposed to make town. Willy’s gleaming pate shone beneath the four or five strands of dark hair that ran from one side of his head to the other as he worked the white dish towel inside the glasses. He had his towels washed, just as he had his and Sherman’s clothes washed and tailored by the chinese launderers just outside of town. Someone had to do it. They too were a necessary evil, as soon as the rail was complete they could tie up their braids and go home and let the new red Irish do the wash and the Italians do the tailoring for all he cared. Willy’s ancestors had bilked the natives out of Staten Island and he was proud of it. Sherman’s ancestors had come over on the Mayflower. He was entitled to lift his little finger when he drank. Sherman liked the business end of things, it suited him to pen clean numerals in lined sheets and sign bills of lading with a flourish. His coat was always more smartly cut, his short top hat of the brightest green felt to be had, his boots more highly polished. He was responsible for the cleanliness and fashionable tone of the place. Drinkers at the time had three choices, Willy and Shermans place, known as the Excelsior, Able’s Saloon, or the clapboard stall just as one came into town that had no signboard that everyone called Gertrude’s place. Gertrude and Able both did a fair business but drovers usually started at the Excelsior, it was tony. The girls there required the cowhands take a bath if fresh off the trail and most were happy to oblige, considering their options, which were none. Willy and Sherman supported the girls in that idiosyncrasy, as they made money on the baths and the girls. Additionally it lent itself to the upscale nature of the establishment, even if some of the ablutions were cursory. Sherman was striving to make the place as fancy as a lifted little finger place he’d visited once in New Orleans before the war. He had badgered Willy to apportion the funds to complete the boardwalk to meet the banks’. The mercantile and milliners shops between them had not wished to outlay the capital, but Sherman had donated enough to allow it to be built and now his circuit was complete, his feet never touched the ground. One didn’t have to look too closely to notice that for a three saloon town it was pretty swank, but the brown spit still stained the floor, the glasses weren’t spotless, the girls weren’t all plump, the prices were a bit above the merchandise and the lady in the painting above the mirror had a lazy eye.

All three herds did make it to town at the same time. Strangely, the cattle buyers paid what the trail bosses considered top dollar for every head, all three herds at the same rate. It made everyone happy right at the get go. Some drovers took their pouches of coin to the Excelsior and began to take baths and liberties. Some had the good sense to head over to Able’s or Gertrude’s and avoid the crush and as usual quite a few just put their jingle in their saddlebags, partnered with safe company and pointed their mounts for home where wife and family waited, a long ways back down the trail. The mob in the Excelsior was riotous. It was all spurs, elbows and  standing room  only and Caleb, Honor, Willy and Sherman knew they would be at it all night and maybe the next one as well. They had even paid a hardware clerk to play the piano. He was lively, loud and that was all. The drovers, all wearing sidearms and loathe to part with their rifles, except those who only owned old cap and ball outfits they felt safe leaving with the stable master, were either happily seated at games of cards, leaning against the bar and fighting for elbow room or holding up the walls. The place was packed,  rank. No one wanted to be outside though it was a beautiful day. Even Albert was called behind the bar to assist Honor in washing glasses. Honor didn’t mind washing glasses. She was happy to let the other girls take care of business for awhile, her clientele would be content to wait, and pay a premium price, Honor was worth it. Albert couldn’t have mopped the floor anyway, there were too many feet on it.

No one was testy, not at first. The cowhands were a crowded, happy mob, content to jostle as long as the beer and whisky was quick in coming. Willy, with his shiny, bald head, four combed over strands and sizeable bulk was smiling smugly, he was making money. Sherman was glowing, mingling with the crowd, watching the gaming tables. But as the afternoon wore on things did become a bit more fractious. Camaraderies born on the trail gave way to remembered grievances and past slights. The piano playing became more discordant, the close atmosphere more ripe. and even the elbow felt sharper and the feet bigger and more clumsy. Some cowboys were growing impatient at waiting their turn for upstairs, unhappy with the way the cards were playing out and convinced the spirits were degrading in quality, which in fact they were. Willy had a few labeled bottles that were refilled from a bulk supply of low grade stuff he used when he figured a customer couldn’t tell the difference. Insults began to be bandied about in a less lighthearted manner.

Albert couldn’t tell you how it started. He was looking up at the ankles of the woman in the painting, he had never been that close to it before and her ankles did have a lovely turn. He heard the first shot and had the good sense to fall to the floor behind the bar, his father had taught him that much. Honor fell on top of him, it was convenient for her, she had learned well also and since Caleb wasn’t moving fast enough on his single peg, she was happy to fall anywhere, even if it was on a boy, it wouldn’t be the first time. Caleb fell the other direction, and not by choice. The bullet meant for Willy struck Caleb cleanly in his heart and startled the life right out of him. Caleb had been a good man, served as adequately as any other man in the battle at Pigeon Forge and losing his leg there had been as big a surprise there as losing his life behind the bar was. Falling, he moved Willy out of the second, more accurate bullet that was headed his way, and caused Willy to send his first barrel of shot into not one, not two but four cowhands on the other side of the room who were just starting to wonder what the fracas was about. Now that they were part of it they took umbrage and, aiming at Willy, broke the big expensive glass mirror that had been shipped at great expense from Philadelphia. One of the four had no part in the volley, he too had been dealt the surprise of his lifetime from Willy’s scattergun. The other three, stung, drunk and careless, let loose in crazy directions as guns were being pulled and leveled all around them. Some guns weren’t leveled, just drawn and fired. We know now that Sherman had started it all when a cowboy, with a bit too much glee, had removed Sherman’s spotless green felted tophat and replaced it with his own tattered chapeau and headed for the door. Sherman was petulant,  outraged, hadn’t a deal of practice with his derringer and managed to blast the heel of the cowboy clean off. Not his boot heel, his anatomical heel where a bone that held him upright lived. The cowboy, in return had quickly put a little dark dot in Sherman’s chest, surprising him greatly when he lowered his head and looked at it. The shots and Sherman’s fall had spurred Willy into taking the shotgun from beneath the bar to take aim at the heel-less cowboy who was now sitting in the  doorway.  The cowboy took aim at Willy, not wishing to be on the receiving end of the fowling piece. Things might have ended there, with Sherman dead, and maybe the cowboy or Willy but the chain of events from first the cowboy’s miss, then Willy’s wayward shot set loose a cascade of events that today is known as the great Excelsior Massacre and Fire, because the fire came right after.

In most of the bar fights of the westerns, punches thrown and shots fired resulted in property damage and not much else. The expensive mirror was a given goner, as was almost every bottle, chair, pool cue and table in the place but the participants often walked away wiping a bloody lip with a shirtsleeve, arm in arm with their former combatants. When the smoke cleared, it was a day and a half, seventy eight souls had departed for the hereafter leaving only Albert, Honor and the heel shot cowboy alive, he’d been lucky to be near the door anyway as he’d almost made it out with the bright green hat when hit. They hung him with it on. Witnesses in the street had seen him firing back into the bar, one claimed it had been his shots that blew apart the oil lamp and started. the fire. Modern forensics, were they available in the old west, would have determined that most of the victims had been totally surprised or incapacitated by the wild gunfire that erupted, and that few died in the fire, including the girls and their clients who had been upstairs at the time. One poor fellow had the bad luck to be shot in both arms and so was unable to extricate himself from the deep bathtub he was in and was subsequently boiled alive. In all over 312 rounds had been fired in the space of about a minute and a quarter, several cowhands had emptied their revolvers. Someone shot the piano player. One of the upstairs girls was found to have a bullet in her sternum, assumed to have come up through the floor. Honor made it out before the shooting had become general by scrabbling off Albert and down the trap door in the floor. Albert was hot after her and Willy might have made it too had he not slowed to let loose his second barrel at the chap who’d shot the mirror and tripped and caught one in the buttock from a regular who had always been unhappy about the watered down spirits. Other stray rounds and ricochets found him and he was ended by the fire when the oil lamp exploded above him. Old grudges and scores were settled in that brief raucous fusillade and conflagration, heroes, villains, innocents and the unbelieving were all become equal as the fire, the place did burn like excelsior,  caused the stampede and the fallen and the furnishings blocked the narrow doorway. Contrary to popular belief not all saloons had swinging doors. Some, even tony joints, in the west had solid substantial planks that only swung inward so they could be barred when closed. The place burned to the ground. Shots continued to ring out as the fire set them off in magazines, belts and pockets.  The milliners shop was untouched, as was the mercantile, breezeways that separated them from the saloon allowed townspeople to throw buckets of water from the horse troughs in the street on the walls and keep the fire from spreading.

The undertaker found his task relatively easy and lucrative, it was all sintered bones and could be placed in small boxes. easily buried.  No one really knew one set of bones from another. There were also very few, the fire had been all consuming. Most in the town wanted little to do with the cleanup. They had always thought the Excelsior a sinful place, not because of the girls, it was just a bit too lavish for a frontier town, too fancy. The town council did insist upon its share of what the undertaker found however, as compensation for the cemetery lots, each of the seventy eight receiving a full plot, clean up expenses, the laws’ efforts to locate relatives of the dead and general expenses. They insisted the undertaker exchange the tainted money for unscorched  funds and the bank had been happy to oblige, one of its clerks being put to work with rags and pumice. Honor bought the lot where the Excelsior had stood and ordered a new saloon built of brick with broad swinging doors and large, multipane windows. She called the place the Rosebud and a passing working girl sketched out a sign which Albert did a remarkable job of painting. She kept Albert on and hired the indian woman, who’d been visiting relatives at the time the incident took place, as cook and required nothing else of her. Some wondered where Honor had come up with the money to build a new saloon but most just assumed she had earned it and was frugal, which was partly true. The rest of the money had been below the trap door and when she and Albert had been making their way out and saw how things were with Willy they figured they were as entitled to it as anyone else. Albert lived in one of the rooms upstairs in the new place, even after Honor had sold out and left for San Francisco. He was living there still when the saloon became a quiet dubious restaurant during prohibition and some of the old timers remember seeing him dance in his loose boned, jingidy way at street dances. He would have been about eighty then. Today the building serves as a real estate office and the agents will spill a little of its history it they think a client is interested in such things.



DavidW - Publisher

Raised in obscurity and completely entranced with the notion that we should live our lives with the same valuable ethic that a conscientious hiker would, leaving no trace.