GAMBLERS AT WESTPORT LANDING
The hot July sun beat down on the little log shed that served as one of the two saloons of Westport Landing, on the bank of the Missouri River. Inside, Jerome sat on a empty whiskey barrel, resting his head on the bar as he tried to fend off the stagnant air. He felt the shakes coming on again and glanced at Harry, the tall slender man behind the counter.
Harry saw Jerome's look and shook his head. "No more, Jerome. You ain't got a penny left. You shouldn't drink it all away before noon. You're gonna have a dry day."
Jerome didn't like to be lectured and placed his forehead on his arm as he fought against the tide of nausea in his stomach.
"You must remember," continued Harry as he meticulously polished a spittoon resting on the counter, "always save something for the future. That's how to survive; that way ya won't be taken by surprise and get yourself in a fix."
Jerome tried to shut out Harry's words as he schemed where to get money for his next drink. The flies buzzed about and the air grew hotter as the bartender droned on with his unasked for
advice. Suddenly they heard horses outside and the heated conversation of two men. "I'm telling ya, Moon, ya tried to shoot me! That weren't fair, that weren't the bet," said the first.
"Hell, Rodney, it was the bear! I was shooting at the griz! I won and I get your knife."
Heavy boots fell on the wooden sidewalk before the door burst open and two large men stepped inside. As the odor of bear grease and buffalo hides hit his nose, Jerome lifted his head to stare at the two mountain men dressed from toe to top in skins and rawhide. One man, standing over six feet and weighing at least two hundred and forty, smiled through a full beard as he swung a Hawkens buffalo gun at the bar. "Here we are, Moon. Let's get some Taos Lightning in our gut befer I strangle on my tongue."
The second hunter was as tall as the first but skinny with light brown hair and brown beard. "Rodney, ya still owe me yer knife. I won that fair and square."
They both strode to the bar as the one called Rodney shook his head. "Jesus, we got to have a drink before we talk about the knife. Besides, what about the antelope; I caught it, didn't I? You never gave me my bacca."
Both Jerome and Harry watched the two newcomers as they faced each other and argued. "It ain't so," protested Moon. "Ya shot it first. I said ya had to catch it on yer horse. Ya went and shot it, instead."
Rodney laughed and winked at Harry. "Confound it; ya never said nothing about shooting. Ya just bet I couldn't catch 'er. Well, I did. I shot 'er and then caught 'er. Now give me my bacca."
Moon shook his head before nodding toward Harry. "Bar keep, bring us yer best whiskey and don't go far. We're here to drink."
Harry placed two whiskey glasses before the men and, opening a bottle, poured in a dark liquid. Rodney picked up his glass at once and took a healthy drink. Banging the glass down on the bar he bellowed, "Christ, this is choke dog, sure! Where's the good stuff?"
Harry shrugged his shoulders. "It's the best we got. It was made with water right from the Big Muddy."
Rodney picked up the glass and drained it. "Hell, if it's the best, then fill 'er up again."
Harry refilled the mountain man's glass. "You men been out long?"
Moon cocked his head to one side. "What month is it?" he asked.
Jerome spoke for the first time. "It's July ninth, eighteen and thirty eight."
Moon looked at his partner and grinned. "Jesus, Rodney, we been out a year and ten months!"
"And I'm dryer than a rattler's tail," exclaimed Rodney. "Fill 'er up again." He turned toward Jerome. "Bet ya can't guess how many beav we took. Go ahead, guess. I'll bet ya a drink. Guess within ten and you'll win."
Jerome felt the flush of embarrassment creep up into his cheeks. "I've got no money," he said in a low voice.
Rodney laughed. "What else ya got? Ya must have something to bet." He then looked Jerome up and down, and Jerome felt ashamed of his poor attire and dirty condition. "Well," said Rodney, "it don't appear ya got much else to bet with." He turned toward the bartender. "You ya want to bet? Guess within ten and ya win!"
Harry shook his head. "If you two have beaver to sell, better do it fast. I hear they're going down again."
"Going down again?" said Moon. "Drat, soon it won't be worth even going fer beav."
Abruptly, Rodney's fist hit the counter. "Let's eat! What ya got fer food, Bar keep?"
Boredom was on Harry's face as he stared at the two mountain men through narrowed eyes. "We got bread; it's only two days old. I got some good pickles back here and maybe I can find some cheese."
Moon leaned forward on the bar and yelled. "Bread and pickles! We want meat! What meat ya got?"
Harry shook his head. "Sent my boy into Westport for supplies; he won't be back until this afternoon. Until then I got no meat."
"God," exclaimed Rodney. "This is poor bull for sure! We got to have meat. What kind of establishment is this no meat?"
Suddenly, Jerome felt perfectly recovered. "You want meat? I got a badger outside. I was going to cook it for supper, but I could let 'er go for a price."
Moon frowned. "Badger, Jesus Christ, we want bufler steaks or beef. Horse would do fine."
Rodney slapped his partner on the back. "What's got into you, Moon? We ate badger and snake and skunk and every other critter what crawled. Hell, badger is good meat. Bring that animal in here..." he pointed at Jerome but realized he didn't know his name.
"Jerome's my name and I'm glad to meet ya." Jerome held out his hand which Rodney took and vigorously shook.
"Glad to meet ya, Jerome. I'm Rodney and this here pile of panther dung is my partner, Moon. Now hop off that barrel and fetch that badger and we'll have a fair shake."
Jerome quickly left the saloon and returned with a dirty, smelly burlap sack. Dropping the sack on the floor before the two trappers, he opened the end and emptied the stiff bodied badger on the rough plank floor. "Well," he said, "what do you think? He's a ring tailed snorter, ain't he? How much you give me for him?"
Moon bent down to get a better look at the animal. "Well, it ain't very big and it's been dead some time. It could hardly feed two growed men, but it's better than going hungry. It'll last until this afternoon. We'll give you..." he looked at his partner, Rodney.
Rodney nodded toward the badger. "We'll buy ya half a bottle of whiskey. We hate to drink alone and you look like a drinking man. What do ya say?"
Jerome couldn't believe his luck. "It's a deal!"
"Good," said Rodney. "Give my friend Jerome a half bottle and put it on us."
As Harry placed a bottle and glass on the counter before Jerome, his face soured even more. "I ain't skinning and gutting that animal. If you want that cooked, ya'll have to skin it yourself."
Rodney turned to Moon. "How fast ya think I can skin that badger? It's so stiff, it'll be hard to do. Go ahead, name it!" Moon glanced about and then looked at his rifle. "I'll bet ya can't skin that badger before I reload my bullthrower. I'll bet my rifle against yer horse!"
Rodney grinned. "It's a bet, my horse and yer rifle." He pulled his long hunting knife from it's sheath.
Moon grabbed Rodney's wrist. "Ya got to skin and clean it." Rodney continued smiling as he put his knife back, took Moon's buffalo rifle and, aiming at the saloon's roof, pulled back the hammer and squeezed the trigger. Everyone watched as the hammer fell on the percussion cap and, a fraction of a second latter, the muzzle shot out a cloud of blue smoke, and a loud explosion filled their ears.
Both mountain men laughed as Harry and Jerome shook their heads in an effort to regain their hearing. Rodney handed the rifle to Moon. "Now we need a starter." He turned toward Jerome. "You say 'go.'"
Jerome had already downed one glass of whiskey and was refilling for his second. The alcohol was doing its magic and he felt much better. "Sure, get ready..."
"Now just a minute!" yelled Harry. "You can't skin that animal in my place. Take it outside."
Rodney leaned back and laughed. "To hell with that," he looked at Jerome and nodded his head.
Jerome was feeling better every minute and now he would get to see a contest between the two mountain men. "All right, get ready...go!"
As Moon frantically worked to reload his buffalo gun, Rodney walked to the badger and placed one boot on its head. Reaching down, he picked up the back legs and made quick cuts in the hide with his knife.
"Christ!" whispered Jerome, shocked at the suddenness of Rodney's actions.
"Oh God," said Harry. "You'll get blood all over my floor." In seconds Moon had his gun cleaned of spent powder and was filling it with fresh powder, but as he did so, he glanced at his partner. Rodney had made cuts down the animal's back legs, re sheathed his knife, and was pulling the badger's skin from its hind legs toward its head. The quickness of Rodney's movements mesmerized Jerome and temporarily made him forget his whiskey.
Moon put a ball into the rifle muzzle and then rammed the ball home with a hickory rod. Yet, Moon could see he was losing the race and, in his hurry to replace the percussion cap, he left the ramrod in the gun's barrel. He opened the door to the patch box set in the gun's stock and grabbed a cap. Cocking the rifle, he struggled to put the cap in place, ignoring the other caps, which fell out all over the floor.
Rodney stood straight and laughed as he cut open the badger's stomach and, reaching in with his hand, scooped out the internal organs. "I've won!" he yelled as he threw badger intestines, stomach and liver on the saloon's floor.
"Stop this!" yelled Harry as he waved his hands in the air. "You can't do this in my establishment."
"No, no, no," whined Moon as he finally got the cap on the gun's nipple. Struggling to finish, Moon unintentionally aimed his rifle at his partner. Rodney glanced at the end of the ramrod sticking out the muzzle and, with a quick swipe of his hand, pushed the barrel away, causing Moon accidentally to pull the trigger.
The rifle exploded, spewing out blue smoke again. Everyone knew it was a misfire and froze to see if anyone was hit. As the smoke cleared, Rodney and Moon looked at each other and, discovering they were both unhurt, laughed and hooted.
Jerome didn't know who had won the bet, but he knew it had been one hell of a race.
A loud moan cut through the thick air causing the hunters and Jerome to look at Harry who was standing behind the bar, his right arm extended and the ramrod pinning his hand to the saloon's rear wall.
"Balls!" yelled Rodney. "Ya shot the bar keep, Moon." Both men rushed behind the counter to rescue Harry.
The bartender groaned and, reaching up with his free left hand, gently took hold of his right wrist. "Oh God, men, get me down. Pull it out. I'm stuck to the wall."
Rodney pointed to where the ramrod penetrated Harry's hand. "Looky at that, Moon, ya shot that hickory right through his palm. An Injin couldn't 'a done no better with a bow and arrow. Ain't that something?"
Moon was pointing at a hole ten inches above Harry's hand. "Well, I'll be damned. That's where the ball went, missed his hand by almost a foot."
"Please," cried Harry. "Don't talk, just get it out. It hurts like hell!"
With one fluid motion, Rodney pulled out his hunting knife. "What do ya bet that I can whack right through that hickory and free his hand? I'll cut between the board and the hand and I'll do it in one swipe."
"Oh God—NO, don't do it," Harry's eyes were wide with fear.
Moon shook his head. "Can't be done, you'll lob off part of his hand."
"Bet I won't. Bet I don't draw blood."
"You're on," said Moon. "Same bet, your horse and my gun."
"Please, boys," pleaded Harry. "Don't do 'er and the drinks are on me. Please!"
Rodney turned toward Jerome. "You say when."
Jerome swallowed the whiskey in his mouth. Another contest, this was great. "All right, men. Get ready GO!"