The Barkeep

original fiction by

Willard Douglas

This work is copyrighted by Willard Douglas.

There once was a humble saloon keeper whose wife made the best green chili stew in Pima County. She made it fresh every day from pork cut into small cubes and flavored with fresh green chilis, potatoes, tomatoes, onions and seasonings. She arose before daybreak to begin the preparation in the lean-to kitchen attached to the saloon.

The barkeep, who didn’t close the saloon until the last customer left sometime in the wee hours, didn’t get up when his wife did. He slept late and only came out of the small room on the back of the saloon where they slept, to open the bar between ten and ten-thirty.

Besides the old sailor and his parrot, there were only occasional customers before eleven-thirty. They were almost always cowboys. Some were authentic. There were many working ranches raising cattle east of Tanque Verde. When they drove stock into Tucson they started very early in the morning, before daybreak, and by the time they passed back by the saloon on their way back to the ranch they had eaten a lot of dust. They were only interested in the cold beer. Only rarely did they stay for lunch.

The other variety of cowboy was a dude from back east or maybe from southern California. These dude cowboys came to one of the dude ranches nearby and just pretended to be cowboys.

On this particular Wednesday morning the barkeep spied the old sailor walking up out of the wash from the south. The barkeep didn’t know where he lived but every morning he came up out of the wash with Matey riding comfortably on his shoulder. Matey was a bright red and green parrot and was the biggest beggar there ever was. As soon as he spotted the barkeep he flew over to his shoulder. He nibbled on the barkeep’s ear in a caress and then said. “Set ’em up, barkeep.” which phrase he kept repeating until the barkeep swept him away.

He hopped back over onto the old sailor’s shoulder. The two, sailor and parrot, proceeded on inside the barroom to their usual table that was against the back wall adjacent to the far end of the bar. The barkeep watched them pass by and assume their usual place at the table, the old sailor facing the door and the parrot on his shoulder. There was no need to go inside, for the barkeep knew the sailor had no money. He drank whatever the parrot could beg. The barkeep’s charity extended only so far as to give the old sailor one bowl of stew at lunchtime every day.

The barkeep pulled a chair to the open front door. He sat down and and leaned back against the jamb. Squinting to see out into the bright sunlight, he soon saw two men riding up out of the wash. They tied their mounts to the hitching rail. To a less well-trained eye the men may have been mistaken for cowboys but the barkeep knew instantly they were cowboys of the dude variety. Their dungarees and denim shirts were clean and starched. Their boots and Stetsons were new. The two eyed the barkeep as they passed him and went to the bar. He followed them in.

Once behind the bar he said “Mornin’ boys, ya’ll new around here? “

“Yeah.” one of them answered. “Is it too early to get a couple beers.”

“Never too early or too late, I like to say.”

The barkeep turned over two mugs from the dozen or so that were inverted on the bar in front of the tap and began to fill them with beer. He slid the first one down the bar towards the pair of men and then filled the second before repeating the action. As the two men sipped the beer the barkeep leaned back against the back bar right in front of them.

“So, where you boys from?”

One of them said “We’re both from California. How’d you know we were from somewhere else?”

The barkeep just chuckled but when he didn’t answer after a moment or so the man continued.

“We’re staying at the Mountain View Guest Ranch a couple miles down the road here. You know it?”

“Sure. Slim’s place. Slim’s a friend of mine. He tell you about the saloon?”

” He said you make the best green chili stew in the county. Is that right?”

“Lot’s of folks say that.”

“We want to try a couple of bowls.”

“Don’t want to disappoint you but Slim shoulda told you the stew ain’t never fully simmered until the Mrs. says it is and that’ll be somewhere the other side of eleven-thirty so it’s a while off yet. That gonna be okay?”

One of the two dudes said “Slim told us that, but we were already thirsty. Long as you keep the beer coming, we got plenty of time to wait on the stew. “

“I’ll keep the beer comin’ as long as you got the means to pay for it.” the barkeep said.

One of the men pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of his pocket and laid it on the bar. “Will that cover it til the stew get’s here?”

“You bet.” the barkeep said. “Just let me know when you’re ready for a couple more.”

The two men, coming into the dark barroom from the bright sunlight outside, hadn’t even noticed the old sailor and the parrot sitting only a few feet away, so they were surprised at the sudden movement to their left when the parrot jumped from the old sailor’s shoulder to the end of the bar. Both men turned to watch him. The brightly colored creature strutted towards them, his head bobbing and weaving in that way birds do when they walk. He walked right up in front of the first man. The man’s mug was raised to his lips. As soon as he sat it back on the bar, the parrot hopped up right beside it. He stretched his neck up and twisted it so his head was cocked to the side. He peered down into the mug.

He held his head up and looked the man straight in the eye. “Buy us a beer, mister?” the bird said. The man was too startled to react right away but his companion burst out laughing. “I’ve been a lot of places but I’ve never ever seen a parrot beg beer before.”

The first man, the one staring down at the parrot, reached down and swept his hand toward the bird in an attempt to brush him off the bar. The bird deftly jumped over it and skipped right on over to the second man’s mug, repeating his act of peering in and then saying “Buy us a beer, mister?”

The first man laughed now and said. “So what are you gonna do now, Lester?”

“Buy the bird a beer, I reckon. He worked hard enough for it.” Then he looked at the bird. “Are you gonna drink it, bird?”

The bird seemed to know exactly what the question meant. He looked at the man and cocked his head. “Some for me and some for him.” He looked at the old sailor, whose expression hadn’t changed at all during the show. The parrot said, “Beer’s comin’ old man.”

This caused Lester and his friend to laugh even harder.

Lester looked up at the barkeep. “Well. I guess I have to buy the bird and his friend a beer. Do they usually get one each or do they split one?”

The barkeep chuckled, having just seen an act for the first time that day that he would see over and over until closing time. The barkeep knew he would have to wake the old sailor up and send him on his way or he would just sleep right there at the table.

The barkeep slid the old sailor’s beer down the bar where it stopped just out of his reach. Before he could stand and grasp the handle the bird had run along the bar and perched on the rim of the mug to hitch a ride. As soon as the old sailor set the mug on the table, the bird dipped his beak into the golden liquid before stretching his neck up to let it flow down his throat. He repeated the action several times, drinking liberally, before jumping back up to the old man’s shoulder where he automatically lowered his head and waited for his usual reward for procuring the beer. The old man reached up and accommodated the bird by scratching the feathers on the top of his head for a few minutes and saying. “Aye, Matey, that was a good job ye did this day.”

The two dude cowboys were fascinated by these two characters and began to chat with the old fellow. They learned that he was originally from Australia and had sailed to the U.S. as a stowaway on a British merchant ship in 1840 when he was only ten years old. The ship landed in Boston and soon the boy had managed to get employed on one of the many merchant ships sailing out of Boston Harbor. He stayed in the U.S., sailing on merchant ships out of ports up and down the east coast, until 1859 when he joined the U.S. Navy. He was even part of the crew of the U.S.S. Monitor and took part in the Battle of Hampton Roads. He remained in the Navy, barely escaping death or capture on a number of occasions, for the remainder of the Civil War.

After the war he served as first mate on many ships and sailed all over the world. The parrot, who had only ever had the name of Matey, took up with him during a layover of several months on the northern coast of Australia. The best he could recollect that was in ’78 and the two had been inseparable ever since.

By the time he had gotten this far in his story, he and the parrot and the two dude cowboys had finished four beers each and several more customers had come in and were waiting for stew.

About 11:45 the Mrs. must have decided the stew had stewed long enough because she began to set steaming bowls of the wonderful concoction up in the serving window between the bar and kitchen. Each bowl had a fresh flour tortilla folded over the top.

The barkeep tossed a handful of spoons on the end of the bar following them with bowls of stew, two at a time. The regulars tossed and slid the spoons down the bar before passing the hot, steamy stew down behind them as quickly as possible. Those at the tables had to get up and come to the bar to get theirs. The last to get his was the old sailor.

When the barkeep set the bowl of stew down within the old sailor’s reach, Matey hopped over onto the bar and stood there waiting. Presently the barkeep dropped a mango in front of the bird who squawked out “Thank’ee, barkeep.” as he began tearing at the golden fruit. It would lay there the rest of the day as the bird nibbled on it from time-to-time all afternoon. By early evening it would be nothing but a bare pit.

Once the old sailor and the bird had finished their lunches, they both dozed off and paid no attention to what was happening around them. Things began to quieten down after the lunch rush. The two dude cowboys began asking the barkeep more about the old sailor. They wanted to know how he came to be in Tucson. The barkeep told them his last voyage had terminated in San Francisco in ’90 and he had been unable to get another job on a ship because of his age. He had seen the California coast many times and was familiar with almost all the U.S. ports on both coasts but he had never been more than five miles inland. He decided he wanted to see the country. He bought a wagon and team of horses and began driving down the coast. When he got to Mexico he turned east. A year and a half after buying his wagon he found himself in Tucson with no money. He had been here ever since.

By one o’clock only a few regular drinkers and the two dude cowboys were left at the bar. The tables were all empty. The barkeep went back to his chair by the door. He leaned it back and began to doze in the sunshine. The regulars helped themselves behind the bar, leaving their dimes in a saucer next to the tap each time they drew themselves a beer.

The sleeping barkeep roused when he heard the sound of a motor coming towards the saloon. He opened his eyes in time to see a Model T Ford rattling towards him on the dusty road. The passenger waved as the car crossed in front of the saloon and turned around in the small section of cleared desert next to it. It came to a stop at the side of the building and two men got out. One of them was dressed elegantly in a white linen suit. His white shirt was secured at the neck with a bolo tie held together with a large turquoise and silver slide. His black boots had an absolutely impeccable shine on them. His hair and long beard were only a slight shade of gray darker than his suit and he wore a fine Stetson homburg on his head.

The barkeep knew this well-dressed man well by sight although hardly at all in real life. He was an old judge who made the dusty twenty-minute trip out from Tucson three or four days a week depending on his docket. He was most often chaffered by his son-in-law, who called him Daddy and fawned over him, although sometime it would be one of his clerks of court. The barkeep noted that on this day his driver was new. Someone the barkeep had never seen.

As the car passed slowly by the barkeep, the judge held up one finger saying “And a beer” as he did so. The barkeep couldn’t hear the words but knew the meaning of that single finger held up in the air. The judge wanted his bottle of single malt and one shot glass for himself and a beer for his driver. Sometimes, depending on the Judge’s mood, he would hold up two fingers, indicating he wanted two shot glasses. That signified he would share his Scotch with his companion. This didn’t happen very often.

The barkeep went behind the bar and shouted through the delivery window to his wife that he needed two more bowls of stew. The Judge and whoever was driving him always had a bowl of stew each. The barkeep drew the man’s beer before reaching down and bringing out a bottle of single malt Scotch from underneath the bar. The Scotch was the private property of the judge. The barkeep just stored it for him. He also picked up a wax pencil and a shot glass. He took the beer and the Scotch and the shot glass and the wax pencil over to the table. After setting them down he turned to go back to get the two bowls of stew.

As he re-crossed the room he knew exactly what was occurring behind him. The judge would have his left hand wrapped around the bottle of Scotch, the index finger exactly even with the top of the liquid in the bottle where there was a red wax pencil line. His four fingers would be curved around the bottle. He would make another wax pencil line just below his little finger. When the level of liquid in the bottle reached the lower mark his luncheon ration of Scotch would be finished. Four fingers.

The Judge had to provide his own private stock of Scotch because the barkeep didn’t stock Scotch whiskey. There was no need to. The only thing besides beer any of his regular customers drank was bourbon or tequila. Even if he had liked bourbon or tequila, which he didn’t, the judge’s tastes were far too refined to drink the cheap stuff the barkeep stocked. So he had single malt shipped from San Francisco, four cases at a time. He delivered one case to the barkeep, who stored it, keeping one bottle at a time behind the bar.

The Judge’s normal routine would keep him in the saloon until sometime going on two when he would pay the tab for both he and his driver and head back to Tucson. On this day the judge and his driver seemed to be having a disagreement over something but they kept their voices low so the men sitting at the bar couldn’t hear what they were saying.

Suddenly the relative quietness of the saloon was interrupted by a single gunshot. The loud report caused the parrot to emit a loud screech and fly right over the bar and out the front door. His sudden movement and the colorful streak he made as he flew between the drinkers and their beer, his wing tips brushing their noses and eyebrows, caught everyone, even the barkeep, by surprise. They couldn’t take their eyes off the parrot until he had disappeared into the bright sunlight.

The only thing they saw of the Judge’s driver was his back as he followed the bird out the door. The barkeep got to the door just as the Model T came streaking past, trailing a cloud of dust that choked him. The dust drifted through the open door and began to settle on all things and everyone inside. By the time the barkeep recovered, the only thing he could see was the dust trail behind the retreating automobile.

No one had gotten a clear look at the driver except the bird, who had obtained the relative safety of a mesquite limb close to the side of the road a few hundred feet from the saloon. He watched as the man sped out of the parking area and onto the road.

Back inside, the barkeep ran over to the judge’s table. The Judge, or rather his body, was slumped over his half filled glass of Scotch. A small red circle was slowly soaking into the hair on the back of his head. The barkeep pulled his head up and saw where the bullet had entered his forehead. Blood trickled down his face and pooled on the table.

The barkeep ran behind the bar and pulled a double-barreled twelve gauge and a handful of shells from beneath it. He ran out through the kitchen to the back of the saloon. Standing on the edge of the wash, he pointed the shotgun almost straight up and fired both barrels in succession before reloading and firing one more shot into the air. This was the signal he used to alert the sheriff’s station a mile to the east that there was an emergency at the saloon.

Almost immediately a siren began to wail and in less than five minutes a sheriff’s car pulled to a stop in front of the saloon. The barkeep quickly told the deputy what had happened. They concurred that the Judge was dead and agreed that a doctor must be summoned. The nearest doctor had a practice at his home in east Tucson. He arrived with the deputy about twenty minutes later but could only confirm what the deputy and barkeep already knew.

A short while later the sheriff himself arrived on the scene, followed quickly by the U.S. Marshal for the Tucson district of Arizona. The Marshal immediately assumed the leadership role in questioning the customers. None had seen the murderer well enough to describe him. When the judge and his driver had arrived, the only two persons facing the door were the barkeep and the old sailor. The old sailor couldn’t see more than five feet down the bar so the only person who had seen the driver was the barkeep. He described the man as being of medium height and build and being dressed in a dark brown suit and light blue shirt with a string tie. He remembered he had on an old brown felt fedora which had obscured his face when the barkeep served the men their drinks and stew.

The coroner arrived with a photographer. He took photos of the body and the wounds. The sheriff found the bullet lodged in the wall behind the judge’s body. Based on the point where the bullet struck the wall and the likely position of the judge’s head when the bullet entered it, he determined that the gun was probably fired at a slightly upward angle from near the hip of the assassin. He guessed the gun had been taken out of the side pocket of his coat.

That was the conclusion of the investigation at the scene. The coroner’s men removed the body. The sheriff and marshal and coroner all left the saloon. The blood was left to be scrubbed up by the barkeep. He had little regret, however, because as the news spread about the murder more and more thirsty customers came drifting in to see the scene of the crime and discuss who might have done it. The rumors became more far-fetched with every passing hour and with every beer that was served.

About half-an-hour after all the commotion had died down, Matey came flying back in through the door and assumed his position on the old sailor’s shoulder. None of the regulars were at all surprised. They, as well as the old sailor, knew from past experience that the bird would come back as soon as the excitement died. He always did. Within a few minutes he resumed his begging.

For the next several weeks the saloon was buzzing from the time it opened until the barkeep finally managed to get the last person to leave sometime after two in the morning. The conversation always centered on the judge and the murder. Rumors were rampant, of course, but the marshal’s investigation was going nowhere.

About two months later at mid-afternoon, the slowest time for the saloon, a man walked up out of the wash. He wore a very dusty brown suit, a shirt that may have at one time been white, and a string tie. As he came inside and passed by the front of the bar, the barkeep looked up and had a feeling he had seen him before but couldn’t place where. Probably some old tramp from the looks of his suit. He didn’t even have on a hat.

The old sailor and Matey were in their usual spot. Both were dozing. Almost all of the barstools were occupied. The dusty man went to the far end of the bar just a step or two from where the old sailor sat. He said nothing. He just pointed at the beer tap and lay a dime on the bar. The barkeep drew him a beer and took the few steps necessary to actually set it in front of the man rather than just sliding it down the bar. He hoped to get a good look at him, but the man refused to look up.

Before the man could raise the mug to his lips, the bird appeared next to it. He stretched his neck up and peered down inside and then, as usual, looked directly up into the strangers face. Rather than his usual “Buy us a beer, mister?” squawk, he jumped back wildly and half flew – half jumped back to the old sailor’s shoulder as he began to shriek “Murder! Murder! Murder!” hopping wildly around.

The stranger’s hand went into his coat pocket and came out with a revolver. He pointed it at the bird. Before he could pull the trigger the butt of a twelve-gauge smashed down on his hand, completely crushing it. The gun went skittering along the bar as the man yelled out in pain. This particular pain in his hand was quickly overshadowed, however, when the barkeep planted the butt of the shotgun firmly on his mouth. The man toppled backwards off his stool, blood and teeth spewing from his mouth. The barkeep, who had immediately grabbed a handful of shells and headed for the back door, yelled over his shoulder. “Ya’ll at the bar make sure that man don’t move. If he starts to get up, just press your foot on his right hand right tight. I’m betting that’ll make him gentle as a kitten.”

It was less than a minute when two quick shotgun blasts were heard from outside the back of the saloon as both barrels of the shotgun were fired in quick succession. After a brief pause they were followed by one more. Five minutes later a sheriff’s car arrived and took the dusty man away.

Matey continued to scream “Murder! Murder! Murder!” until the barkeep brought he and the old sailor a beer, dropping a handful of peanuts on the table as he set the beer down.

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