“Haul Your Pretty Arses”
It was a trifling sample of speech upon which the local had founded that opinion. The stranger had used sparing words to let the barman know he had just arrived there in Banter, New Léxico, having crossed the Siege Plain alone but for his paint horse and two roan ponies, and that he would appreciate a shot of Hassinee whiskey and a pair of boiled eggs. When the barman told him they kept no chickens in Banter, he had merely shrugged, surrendering no phonetic clues.
For these reasons, the stranger knew that this ruffian was not inviting him to discuss dialect, nor were his handful of accomplices—gathering ever closer by the breath—hankering for a conference on linguistic and prosodic peculiarities. Evil intent was nestled fast in the man’s jibe like a tick on a wild horse, and there was no academic satisfaction for it.
“Lay off ‘im, MacCorthy,” the barman said.
The local leaned a little closer to the stranger. “I said you don’t sound like yer from ’round here.”
The stranger downed the shot of whiskey and nodded to the barman for a second and kept his eyes on the mirror behind the bar with a proverbial thousand-yard stare more appropriate to the oceanic vistas of the high country over which he had recently passed than the confines of Banter’s notorious Pith Bucket saloon. He had only been in the town for a bit less than an hour, just long enough to change out of his trail clothes and thereby avoid offending human company with the pale of dust he had collected on the long mindless ride from San Serafíno and here already were a half dozen bespurred hooligans testing his grit and one of them with a hat band made from a snake with its own rattle in its mouth like a token from Death upon deputation.
The stranger downed the second shot of whiskey.
“I don’t sound like I’m from around anywhere, and you’re not trying to figure out where I’m from. You’re trying to make me feel unwanted and threatened.”
A man with no chin and a thick neck nudged the gang leader with an elbow. “Unwanted and threatened.” They laughed together.
The stranger slid the empty glass across the bar and slowly turned toward the gathered and grinning brutes. “You’re trying to make me feel unwanted and threatened. I don’t need you on the first count, and you don’t have a chance in Hell on the second.”
Smiles spun off into oblivion like dust devils before a rising wind, and the gang of locals took a step back. The chief of them surveyed the stranger from hair to heel.
“You told the barkeep you came all the way out from San Serafíno, Hassinee, and across the Atacado all by your lonesome?”
“No. I had my horse, and drawing two ponies beside.”
The locals laughed again, for no good reason other than trying to regain the upper hand on the stranger. A table of gamblers eased out of their chairs and abandoned cards and cash on their way to the door.
The stranger neither laughed nor left. “Just my pintado and two roan ponies. I don’t have a high regard for the society of men.”
“Pintado. My paint horse.”
“You named your paint horse ‘Pintado’?”
The stranger made a point of just letting the mistake pass. Instead, he wide-eyed the locals as if asking where they were all going next. The locals checked each other’s faces for a failure of nerve, then leaned in. Their leader sniffled with an audible flutter of mucus and flicked up the flap of the stranger’s shirt pocket with a dirty finger.
“What I’m saying is you don’t look like you just rode in from the high country, dusted and shit. You look all do’d up like you just stepped off a dime novel.”
The stranger brushed the pocket flap flat with one hand. “Cover of a dime novel.”
“Like I just stepped off the cover of a dime novel, you mean.”
Realizing they had lost ground again, the gang stepped in even closer. The lead man’s cheek was twitching like the flank of a fly-bothered pony.
“You look like you just stepped out of Mr. Chew’s laundry then,” he said.
“I don’t know who Mr. Chew is,” the stranger explained.
“You look too clean for the trail,” said the chinless man.
“Like you just stepped out of the laundry,” said the leader again.
“Yeah, clean,” said the man with the rattlesnake hat.
“You tryin’ to purty yerself up for Banter, boy?”
He took in the array of his assailants: neckless-chinless, dead snake adorned, twitchy, scarred, sunburnt, and greasy. Their eye count and ear count both averaged slightly under two. Their gun count, as far as he could detect, averaged right around one. He weighed all of these facts as he considered his response.
“Well,” the stranger said, “we can’t all be as pretty as you fellows.”
With a shuffle of vests and long coats, the gun count was revised upward. There were a couple of Ridgling Army Model 73′s he hadn’t figured into his calculation, plus what looked like a .44 Number Three, and the weird curved handle of a Jeffers 1172 sticking out of a raggedy edged vest pocket. The conversation portion of this conversation was clearly approaching its end. The stranger realized there was nothing for it. The barman had come to the same conclusion, and was pretending to wipe down glasses and bottles of whiskey in a subtle effort to remove them from the back shelf to a safer location beneath the oak counter.
The stranger watched the last of the gamblers and peaceful clients of the Pith Bucket exit through the swinging doors.
“If you wish to ride me further, gentlemen, we should finish this in the open air. The barman here has no part in our quarrel and should suffer none of it.”
The leader of the roughs was perplexed at the stranger’s fearless candor, and he shook his head three times as if to dis-lodge the irreconcilable content from his ear.
“What’s your intention, stranger? You think one on six is a dog-fall? Are you callin’ us out?”
“I am,” the stranger replied. “Haul your pretty arses outside.”
“Arses!” burst the chinless man, in a hurried attempt to regain the upper hand in the war of the wisecracks. His compatriots all laughed, as obliged. The man with the rattlesnake hat wiped his nose on his sleeve and asked: “Where are you from, dandy man?”
“My family was from Jackland. I am from Hassinee.” He nodded toward the door. “And we are all of us for the street. So, let’s go.”