Excerpt from Red & White
By Kenneth Weene
“Well that was some ruckus we had us this morning.” Old Man Miller spat; his spittle clanked into the bucket that served as a spittoon. “You know how she started?”
John McCabe settled into a chair. “Sure do. It was ‘count of Mrs. Knox, you know Amos’s wife. She come into town with him. Wanted to buy some of that cloth Jedidiah had ‘em ship in from Omaha. Wanted to make herself a new dress, and…”
“Hrmph! Hrmph!” The older man snorted his impatience.
John continued, “she was walking cross the street when that Injun saw her, and him not thinking none because of the liquor, why he said, ‘Howdy.’ And she said, “Howdy,” back. And Wainright he took ‘ception count of him bein’ an Injun and shouldn’t be talkin’ to no White woman.”
The saloonkeeper stroked his whiskers and spat again. “Just, ‘Howdy?’”
“Yes, sir, ‘Howdy.’”
“That boy’s got mean in his brain. He’d have taken exception if that Injun has passed wind.” Old Man Miller hucked another wad of spit into the bucket.
“Yes, Sir. … We gonna stop sellin’ whiskey to them Injuns?”
The older man laughed—the sound of a goat bleating in surprise. “Hell no! You know what a good fight does?” He paused for emphasis. “Gets a man’s thirst roaring. That’s what it does. Sold more beer today than we do most weeks.” He cackled again.
The door to the saloon had been locked, at least a stout of wood had been wedged against it. The saloonkeeper and his young helper were heating their dinner — the usual, beans with a few chunks of pork thrown in for flavor. John was always thankful to see his employer happy. When business was good, the old man was more likely to share those bits of fatty meat. Most days, the younger man had to settle for just the beans. Tonight’s dinner was looking promising.
“You seen your share of fighting didn’t you, Mr. Miller?” McCabe asked. He had asked the question many times. It was one of Old Man Miller’s favorite topics — the years he had ridden with One-Armed Kearney, even helping the Captain off the field when his arm had been blown away at Churubusco.
Miller’s story always ended the same way. “That was enough fighting for me. Enough of horses, too. Only thing I wanted after Army life was a good drink. That’s why I went into this business. Good liquor and a good chaw: that’s enough for any man!”
When he would finish, the old man would always spit. Even if he didn’t have a plug in his cheek, he would spit. Sometimes, if he were cooking their beans, he’d spit into the pot. “What the hell,” McCabe would think, “it’ll add flavor.”
When he saw that Miller had actually given him a fistful of that pork, McCabe figured the saloonkeeper was in an especially good mood. “Mind if I ask ya a question?”
“Go ahead. Don’t know as I’ll answer, but go on and ask.”
“What about it?”
“What is it?”
“Miller. Hell, you know that.”
“Nah. I mean your Christian name.”
“Folks call me “Old Man.”
“Well, I know that. I mean your real name — the one your folks gave you.”
“On your certificate or when you was baptized.”
“None of that crap. My ma dropped me, and that was about all what she was ready to do.”
“What did your pappy call you?”
“Before he rode out?” The old man lit the kerosene lamp. He ran his finger around the edge of his plate and sucked the last of the beans from his rough digit.
“Hell, all he said was, ‘ain’t no kith of mine.’ Course I don’t recall it being just a baby, but that’s what my Ma told me. Nope, only name I got’s Miller. Course now folks call me Old Man, but I don’t know as it matters. Miller’s ‘nough of a name for a barkeep.” He took a plug and stuffed it into one cheek. The younger man could see the staining of Miller’s teeth — the ones that had not yet rotted out.