Short Story, Jake Tillie's Last Dance, an excerpt from Ridden Hard -- Put Up Wet
The main things I remember about Jake Tillie were his high-topped boots, silver-rowel spurs and black sombrero. Those boots came clean up to his knees and had long mule-ear pulls so's he could get them on. Most folks said he didn't need any pulls, because he never took off those fancy-stitched high leathers. And I reckon my pa was of the same mind, because he buried Jake with them still on out on boot hill.
Jake was real proud of those boots. He claimed to have taken them off a Mexican bandito by the name of Juan Martinez down in Juarez just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. That was after him and Juan got into a shootout over a marked poker deck. I never did hear Jake say which one of them had done the cheating, but that doesn't matter 'cause Juan lost his boots and sombrero.
Jake Tillie fancied himself to be a dancing man. What with Juan's silver-studded "Chihuahua" spurs that jingled like harness bells on a Laplander's reindeer, you could hear his fancy flamingo steps every night.
I'd just turned sixteen the day before Jake rode into Casper, Wyoming astride a bandy-legged cayuse that nobody with any sense would even drop a lariat on. Jake stuck out like a Mexican flag run up over the Alamo with his gold-trimmed sombrero, black leather vest, and striped britches tucked inside high-topped boots.
Pa had moved Ma and me from Lander to Casper during the summer of ninety right after Wyoming got taken into the Union. He bought out Henry Slessinger's furniture store and funeral parlor, because Ma wanted to move to a civilized town. She had showed Pa an article in the Casper Weekly Mail that listed the Casper census at 544 living souls. And most ever'body didn't even know that Lander existed. But her winning argument was our getting coffins and furniture shipped in on the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad, which was bound to turn us a higher profit.
Ma discovered that the move wasn't all that she wanted. It seems that there was about as much uncivilized stuff going on as in Lander, but she said nary a word about moving back. That is, until I started running around with Jake Tillie. Then she got her nose out o' joint when Pa told her to quit fussing, because I was just going through growing pains.
Like I said, Jake came to Casper riding that good-for-nothing horse, which died the day after he tied him to the hitching rail in front of Robert White's Saloon. Reckon it just up and died from neglect, at least that's what the town marshal accused Jake of. Jake just kept on playing poker and drinking booze 'cause there wasn't any law against abusing a horse.
Anyways, that's when I met Jake face-to-face. You see, there wasn't anybody in Casper that did away with dead horses. I'll never forget how livid my pa got when Marshal Tigman walked in and ast him what he'd charge t'drag a dead horse out of town. "Dispose of what?" Pa yelled with his face no more'n six inches from Tigman's eyes that had saucered out like those of a spooked mule.
"Now Mister Geiger," Tigman said, sort of backing away while holding up his hands. "I ain't aiming to insult you by what I ast. It's just that I know you got those two Percheron horses that you pull your glass-sided funeral coach with."
Pa peered at the marshal over his pinch-nosed spectacles. "And you figure they can drag a dead horse?"
"That's about it," Tigman said and tongued his chaw waiting for Pa to reply.
"Who's going' t'pay me?"
"That new hombre by the name of Jake Tillie up at Robert White's Saloon."
"He agree to that?"
The marshal patted the big Colt Peacemaker cradled in his holster. "No, but he will."
Pa scratched his bald noggin while pondering how much to charge for dragging off a dead horse. Then he turned to me and said, "Run up to the saloon and tell Mister Tillie that he owes me ten dollars for disposing of his horse."
I hadn't ever been inside a saloon before, but I had peeked into one through the window back in Lander. That's when Will Dawson kilt Doc Mosley by mistake. I won't ever forget the odors that slithered up my nose when I walked into White's place. A blend of spilt whiskey, stale cigar smoke, and unwashed armpits nearly shoved me right back out the door.
I recognized Jake Tillie from the big sombrero dangling down his back on the end of a leather thong tied around his neck. He was chomping on an unlit cigar jammed into the corner of his mouth and his eyes were studying his hand of cards. The three cowpokes he was playing with were staring at the big stacks of red, white, and blue chips in front of Tillie. I reckon he was winning more than they figured he ought to.
After they finished their hand and Jake was raking in more winnings, I took off my hat and cleared the jitters out of my throat. Jake glanced at me while he was building another stack of chips. "What are you staring at, kid?"
"Uh, are you Jake Tillie?" I said, fingering the brim o' my hat.
"Yeah," he said, sounding real gruff. "Who wants t'know?"
"My pa sent me."
"Your pa, who's your pa?"
"He's a mortician," I said, trying to sound well bred.
"Mortician, you know, an undertaker."
That's when I heard the jingle of those spurs of his for the first time. He slid back his chair and stood up. "You're interrupting my game, kid," he said, toying with a stack of dollar chips. "What does your pa want of me?"
"Your horse is dead."
He began to chuckle. "I know that-don't tell me your pa wants to bury my horse?"
"No, sir, the marshal wants him to drag it out of town."
"Well, that's fine with me, tell 'im t'go ahead."
"Yes, sir... but."
"His fee... is."
Jake stared at me with the hardest look I'd ever seen. "If the marshal wants my horse drug off, go get your ten dollars from him."
One of the cowpokes began to laugh, and then pretty soon the whole crowd stopped playing poker and drinking, and filled the saloon with guffaws. Well, Jake didn't take to all that commotion. He filled his hand with a Derringer, which he pulled out of his high-topped boot, and aimed it square between my eyes. "Now, kid," he snarled, "you just sashay your butt out o' here and go give your pa and the marshal my answer."
"Yes, sir," I said and waited to hear his answer.
"Y'can tell 'em that the buzzards will eat my horse right out there in the street before I'll pay anyone ten dollars."
I knew my welcome had thinned out like lard on a hot skillet. I nodded and stepped backwards toward the door. Just then, a hand slapped me on the shoulder. "Hold up there, son," a man said, squeezing my shoulder with a grip strong enough to make a gorilla cringe.
The grip belonged to Mister White, the bartender and owner of the saloon. He quickly pointed out to Jake the errors of his ways while Jake stared up the double muzzles of Mister White's scattergun. Jake booted his Derringer and handed me a ten-dollar gold eagle. "Okay, kid, tell your pa to go ahead."
Ma began to speak to Pa again after she found out that his reputation as a mortician had not been sullied by his disposing of Jake's dead horse. But Pa let Tigman know right off that he'd drug off his last dead horse. So, from that day on, Pa just buried human beings, those succumbing to natural causes and a goodly bunch that didn't.
Having been exposed to the going's on inside White's Saloon sort of changed my life. I had just turned sixteen and I'd run smack dab into a time when I was trying to decide the difference between good times and minding Pa and Ma. Since my days up to that time had been totally devoid of any sinful pursuits, the temptations of gambling, drinking, and enjoying the wiles of pretty gals began to dog me. I finally decided that Jake Tillie seemed to have the right slant on things. He was winning lots of money, which bought him plenty of Havana cheroots and all the whiskey he could drink. But I reckon the most enticing part were the gals.
The first thing I did was to bust open my bank that I'd been stuffing my money into for a lot of years. I went down to Tidwell's Store and bought me a complete new outfit. Of all my new duds, I was most proud of my new boots. They weren't as tall as Jake's, but they'd been polished until they was slick as lizard sweat. And I thought my spurs were even fancier than Jake's. Mine weren't all silvery like his, but they were solid brass with silver rowels, and jingled just like his.
After I put on all my new stuff, Mister Tidwell stuffed all my old duds into a gunnysack and counted out my change, which came to four dollars and twenty-five cents. I ast him to keep my old duds until I came back-my intentions was to try my hand at poker over at the saloon.
Well, Jake Tillie won my four dollars and twenty-five cents on the first hand of five-card stud. When I told him and the other two players that I didn't have any more money, they busted into more hee-haws than I wanted t'hear. Amid all that taunting, I stood up and slung my chair aside. That was a foolish gesture on my part, because Jake took offense before I could set my spurs t'jingling. Jeez, but he was quick. I swore he was deformed with at least ten fists and all of them coming at my belly and chin at the same time.
That's when I got my first taste of Tennessee sour mash whiskey. When I woke up, my lips and tongue were set on fire. "Wake up, kid!" he yelled, pouring more booze into my mouth.
When my eyes quit being all blurred up, I spewed and sputtered trying t'get my breath. "What is that stuff?" I yelled, struggling to get up.
He held up the jug for me t'see. "Jack Daniels, ain't none better."
Well, the taste of sour mash kept lingering on my tongue until I just had t'have another swig. Jake was real free with his jug that day. In fact, he sat down on the floor beside me and we kilt it while he told me how he'd won his boots and gold-trimmed sombrero.
I took to ol' Jake like good times takes t'whiskey. And I reckon he took a shine t'me, too. We became gambling partners from that day on. He taught me how to turn any game of poker to my favor by more ways than a crow had for pilfering a corncrib. At first, we played together on his money at the same table so's he could show me all the tricks. He said I learned real fast and had the smarts to be a top player. It wasn't long till I was running my own table and pocketing more money every day than Pa got for burying one of Casper's rich folks.
And then there was the dancing with the perfumed gals from upstairs over the saloon. The first time I hugged one of them soiled doves was the day Jake dropped a dollar chip into Smokey Bill's hat. Smokey Bill, he was the guitar player, flashed a couple o' his gold teeth at Jake and said, "Hot?"
"Make it hotter than a jalapeno pepper. It's time the kid learned to jingle them spurs o' his."
Soon as Smokey Bill cut loose on his guitar, Jake opened the stairway door and yelled, "Maggie, it's dancing time. Bring Rosa for the kid."
Maggie and Rosa were the two best-looking gals that entertained the boys upstairs. Maggie was Jake's pick of the lot for dancing and upstairs frolicking, too. Every night after Jake had pocketed his winnings, they'd dance until Smokey Bill couldn't play any more. Then him and Maggie went upstairs for the rest of the night.
"I don't know how t'dance," I said, pocketing my winning's.
He shoved all the tables aside. "Just watch me. Ain't anything to it."
Before I could object, Maggie and Rosa came bounding down the stairs. Jake tossed his sombrero onto the barroom floor, grabbed Maggie's hand, and they began to dance around and around his sombrero. While he stamped his boots, she spun away until her skirt flew up exposing most all of her unmentionables. That's when I began to get calico fever.
I took t'dancing the flamingo just like I'd taken to poker. At first, Rosa got her toes busted a few times before I learned to do the proper steps. But it wasn't long before my spurs were jingling just like Jake's, and Rosa was making her skirt fly higher'n Maggie's. The following weeks I spent with Jake at the saloon playing poker, drinking sour mash, and dancing with Rosa turned me into an abomination to my ma. At least that's what she said I'd become.
I was hard headed as a prospector's burro. All of Ma's pleading and weeping didn't sway me from my sinful ways. Pa tried t'rein me in, but I stuck out my chest, chawed on my cud, and near spat in his eye when I told him where he could go. "Get out," he yelled. "And don't come back."
It all sadly came to an end one Saturday night not long after that. While Jake and I were having our dance with Maggie and Rosa, we didn't pay any attention to the shadowy figure that snuck in the back door. We'd been dancing so long that we were all blowing real hard and the sweat was stinging my eyes. The first thing I knew anything was wrong was when I heard Maggie scream. That's when Pa's big hogleg he kept in a dresser drawer went off right next to my ear. Jake didn't have time to do anything before his spurs stopped jingling for good.
The jury only considered Ma's fate for about ten minutes. I watched Marshal Tigman knuckle his mustache a couple of times while he was whispering to Pa before the jury pronounced their verdict. Pa had seemed to be upbeat during the trial after Tigman testified he'd received a wanted flyer on Jake Tillie. He'd got it the day after Pa buried Jake out on Boot Hill. Ma didn't know it, but she was due the one-hundred-dollar reward promised by the family of Juan Martinez for the capture, dead or alive, of Jake Tillie.
When the jury returned, Pa gripped my arm so tight I wanted to yell. The judge nodded at the jury, and then they sat down. "Who's the foreman?" he asked, peering over his spectacles.
Smokey Bill stood up to face the judge. "I am, your honor."
"Has the jury reached a verdict?"
"We have, your honor."
The judge looked squarely at Ma. "Mrs. Geiger, please stand up and face the jury."
Lawyer Slater, who argued that Ma had been temporarily insane when she kilt Jake, stood up as Pa helped Ma to stand. I'll never forget how she looked standing there all teary eyed, holding onto Pa and Slater's arms. Her mood was as black as her hair that didn't contain a single strand of gray in spite of all the misery I'd dealt her. She was a handsome woman, so said the Casper Weekly Mail reporter the day she was charged with the murder of Jake Tillie.
"And what is your verdict?" the judge said.
Smokey Bill looked right at me, instead of at Ma when he answered. "We find the defendant, Mrs. Sarah Geiger, guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the demise of Jake Tillie," he said, and then pointed his finger right at me. "That's because that brat o' hers drove her t'do it."
Ma near collapsed. Pa eased her down into a chair, and the judge stared right at me. He took off his spectacles and wagged his head before he spoke. "Mrs. Geiger," he said, sounding real sorry for what he had to do. "A jury of your peers has found you guilty of voluntary manslaughter. It is the duty of this court to sentence you to five years in the state penitentiary. However, the court sees fit to be merciful. Your sentence is reduced to six-months probation and a fine of two-hundred dollars."
Ma busted out in tears and Pa gave out a loud whoopee, which the judge ignored as he turned his eyes toward me. "Young man," he said, reaching for his big oak gavel. "Your ma's fine is your responsibility. I'll be seeing you in my chambers."