From the dim recesses of the back of the saloon, I watched him walk through the swinging bat-winged doors. He paused for a moment, allowing his eyes to adjust from the glare of the noonday sun to the dimly-lit confines of the saloon. It was just a small-town saloon, like all the saloons I had been to in the last few years. Rough wooden planking covered the floor, and a long wooden bar ranged across half the room where a few cowpokes stood with their spurred boots hooked on the sturdy railing surrounding the base of the bar. Conversations were quiet, as the heat outside seemed to rob everyone of the energy needed to speak. Somewhere, in the street outside, a stray dog barked. Otherwise, it was a quiet day in Hooker, Oklahoma.
Old General Hooker from the Union Army had passed through this town to which he had lent his name, accompanied by the inevitable train of girls attached to his army and to whom he had given his name for all time. He must have had quite a sense of humor as the town just twenty miles down the road from it was called Beaver!
I had just been appointed Deputy US Marshal by Old Judge Parker out of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and my present duties involved heading for the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. It was a destination to which all the scum and trash of the border appeared to be drifting. My jurisdiction was, near as I could tell, the whole of the area designated as the Indian Nations. I kept my badge hidden in my inside pocket, covered over by my vest since many a time it was an invitation to trouble in this neck of the woods.
I watched the newcomer with interest, for he was obviously out of place in this room. Instead of the elaborately curled Stetsons that most cowboys wore, he had a flat broad-brimmed hat that he probably needed to protect him from the summer sun. In his fields, the sun could bring temperatures of up to one hundred and ten degrees in the open. By his sturdy dirt-encrusted boots and overalls, I could tell he was a farmer or sod-buster as they were called in these parts. His face, neck, and thick forearms were burnt to a deep brown from constant exposure to the sun and the outdoor weather.
He walked up to the bartender and ordered a glass of beer from the keg at the back. Ed, the bartender, poured him a generous mug for which the farmer said, "Thanks, Mister. It's blazing hot outside right now."
"That's no joke, Mister!" the bartender replied with a vigorous nod while carefully wiping the top of the bar with a dishrag.
Now, far as I could tell, there were probably five or six cowpokes playing a slow hand of cards at a table near the bar. They were young, and their voices showed that they had been drinking for a while. One young wrangler, with a fancy, tied- down gun, holstered on his right leg, got up from his table. I heard the scraping of the chair on the floor as he arose and pushed it out of the way. Everyone became quiet.
"We don't drink in the same bar as sodbusters!" He was emphatic and loud. He was chewing on his wad of tobacco and aimed for the strategically placed spittoon at the bar. With an unerring aim, the brown tobacco juice landed smack dab right in the middle of the spittoon. He smirked as if admiring his artistry. I sighed, knowing that there was always one of these idiots in every town. The man in the farmer coveralls said calmly, "Mister, I don't know you, but I live twenty miles out of town, and I got a right to have a quiet, peaceful drink before I leave." And he continued to sip on his beer. The mug looked small in his large farmer's hands.
Old Ed, the bartender, knew what was happening and tried to appeal to the young cowpoke. "Kid, leave the man alone. His drink is bought and paid for, unlike some whom I can name right here."
"Yuh saying I don't pay muh bills, Ed?"
Old Ed sighed and said, "Month-end is coming Earl, and I hopes yuh pay the bill; otherwise, I got ways of getting muh money."
At this, the young cowpoke replied, "Well, I ain't-a-drinking with no farmer! If he has any problems with me, he can very well come outside in a few minutes and argue with me. I'll be waiting in the street." And he glared at the hulking farmer and patted the gun at his hip.
"Mister, I am a peaceable man. I don't carry no gun exceptin' that rifle in the buckboard outside," the sodbuster replied patiently.
"Well, that don't matter a durn in these parts, Mister. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do! A man's got a right to scotch his own snakes! " And again, the smirk appeared on his face. Now I had seen this scenario play out in different towns over the last few years, so I thought I should take a hand in this game. I drew my big Samuel T. Colt Peacemaker from its holster and slowly and deliberately placed it on the table in plain sight of everyone there. At this, the bar went very quiet, not knowing me or what was to come. I was just a drifter passing through, needing a bath and a shave, and a square meal. I could see the kid and his friends sizing me up.
I reached out for the gun and spun the chamber of the revolver in the silence. It was smooth and deadly, obviously cleaned and ready. That chamber of the Colt revolver moved without hardly a whisper.
"A gun is a funny thing, youngster. Some people think it is evil, but it is just a tool, like the rope on your saddle horn. Lots of good and bad men have died being strung up by the rope. This here gun did not wake up this morning and make an independent decision that it was going to kill someone today. That would be my decision! In the wrong hands, it can kill. In the right hands, it can save."
I could see that I had their attention now. I continued without interruption.
"My Paw taught me to shoot when I was eight or nine years old. My old man taught me to be very good because he had been a professional gunman early in his life. He never carried a gun, far as I knew. He was a man of peace. Strictly speaking, he was like this here farmer a-hoeing his fields and planting his crops and raising his family. One day he and my Maw went to town to get some supplies, and that evening Maw brought his body home. Some young cowhand just did not like the way farmers smelled. My dad did not have his guns on him at the time, having given up the practice and him now being a peaceful man. Didn't seem to matter to the young'un. Know what happened next, youngster?"
I knew they wanted to hear the rest of the story. The farmer at the bar drank down his last sip of beer. In the ensuing silence, you could hear the click of the thick, now-empty glass land on the bar as he plunked it down. The stray dog out in the street whined and barked again.
"I was fourteen years old, and after we buried my Paw, I took his guns and went looking for that there young cowboy. He wasn't much, that kid. He thought he was tougher than a farmer's son. I met up with him in a bar just like this and broke his right arm with my first shot. Didn't want to kill him. Just did not want him thinking he could kill another farmer again. I guess I spoiled his gunfighting days for the rest of his life. Come to think on it; he looked a little bit like you, son. I would hate to kill you or break your arm before you have a chance to live. So, you can let this man here have his drink in peace and let him go home to his family. Maybe, just maybe, if you are lucky enough, one day you might even live long enough to have a family of your own. In case you are thinking different, I will be back this way again, and I will be checking on this farmer."
He and his friends thought it over real good, looking into my unshaven, sweat-encrusted face and the silent, deadly gun on the table. They walked out slowly and grudgingly but with palpable relief. The big farmer looked at me and said, "Thanks, mister. I won't forget what you done." He moved towards the waiting buckboard in front of the saloon. Me and Ed watched him get aboard.
I nodded and reassured him, "It is my job to keep the peace." I pulled aside my vest to display the Deputy Marshal's badge to him and Old Ed. "One day, perhaps the ordinary citizen will not have to carry a gun for self-defense as long as there are honest lawmen who will enforce the laws of the land."
It was time for me to go. I finished my drink, clapped my worn old farmer's hat on my head, said my goodbyes to Old Ed, and headed for the door. My Maw would have been real pleased. She would know that I had done my job without killing. It was a thoroughly satisfying feeling!