THE TALE OF OLD JEB
Howdy folks, why don’t you take a load off and rest your beetle crushers, ‘cause I reckon I have a yarn of sorts to tell you about a dumpish greasy belly named Jeb. Now Jeb was the sort who never took any risks in life, just got himself full as a tick every day, criticizing all the young bucks that came into town from back east prospecting for something better. No one knows quite why Jeb hung up his fiddle so early, but some speculate that he fell in love with a lady of the line and one day she ran away with a Mouthpiece from Chicago. It’s speculated after that Jeb became a mop, just paintin’ his nose at any dive that didn’t kick him out.
Now Jeb also had a fine-as-creamy-gravy talent for cuttin’ people down and made sure to use his special gift on just about anyone who strolled into town. Boy, how he hated people with promise. Most fellas just ignored Jeb, but occasionally one or two would get uppity, which was unfortunate for them because Jeb knew how to fight like a Kilkenny Cat and didn’t spare using his boot knife if the occasion called for it. Yup, those were Jeb’s strengths; insults, fighting and not much else.
Well once Jeb was finished offending miners, teasing ranch owners and beating down saddle tramps, and felt properly fuddled for the night, he’d go ahead and return home to his shack in flats. It was a lonely place and that’s just how he liked it. There was no one to bother him except for the howling prairie tenors that he was too jingled up to hear. And every night, just before he laid his anchor down, Jeb would think about life and how much he loathed it. He’d curse the traveling Yankees, young couples jumping the broom and even little tikes too green to talk. Anyone with potential was an enemy to Jeb and he let the desert stars and tumble weeds know it each purple sky.
Now one afternoon, after Jeb pried himself out from his bed like an overcooked flap-jack, he made his way down to the old “French Leave” saloon, a favorite place to rub elbows with other four-flushers and cheats. On this odd day though, upon his arrival he noticed that the usual flush of life spending their eagles on a railroad bibles or wag-tails weren’t around, forcing Jeb to double check his pocket watch. Nope, he was on time and the only one in the place was a plump bartender with a face as ugly as a mud fence that he’d never seen before. Striking Jeb as persnickety, he was never really one who chiefly yearned for others company, so he simply shrugged it off. Instead Jeb wandered to the bar dog and ordered up a base burner.
Threatening to send the barkeep to the bone orchard if he didn’t properly fill up his shot glass, Jeb felt especially rustled this afternoon and wished that there was someone besides the doughy tender, who already looked as if he had one foot in the grave, to brush with. If only he could find himself a rodeo rider, bullwhacker or anyone else who thought they were better than him to rowdy up, he’d make sure to give em’ what they had coming. But no one was around…no one that is until he came in. Some slick black leg with barking irons on his side marched his way into the swinging doors, causing Jeb to feel as if heaven itself had answered his very prayers. This close fisted auger was all dolled up with ash gut-hooks, crimson choke strap and a suit-n’-bowlers hat combo as gray as a tombstone. Most likely some fool from Gotham, the chances of this huckleberry having both money and big mouth were odds Jeb would gladly bet on; and he wasn’t much a gambling man. Watching the gentleman shoot a crow from the bar, Jeb waited for his chance to cross glares with the stranger. You see, Jeb was a train of man who never much had trouble reaching a top shelf or moving furniture and couldn’t wait to let the outsider to see for himself. Searching him over, Jeb noticed that the mysterious feller too was a hog at the trough, just as tall as Jeb, but a tad lankier.
Close to a conniption fit, Jeb was too hell-fired anxious to wait any longer for this stranger to glance him back and decided to keep the pot boiling by introducing himself. Standing over the man in gray as he drank his coffin varnish, Jeb took special aim at the feller’s glass, spitting a globby bulls-eye into his cup. Well, in any city or town out West, such an act is enough to draw your Black-Eyed Susans and fire, but for some odd reason all the stranger did was swallow the drink whole, Jeb’s slobber and all. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, the stranger stood up, pushing his chair out with his rear and spinning around like a circus clown. Jeb noticed for the first time that the smoke faced stranger had purposely hung his hat just low enough to hide his eyes under the shade of its brim. Still as a dead man, he separated his lips and whispered in Jeb’s direction, “Cards.” Undaunted, Jeb laughed, keeping a close eye on his new friend’s irons.
“You must think me a fool,” Jeb argued, cracking his knuckles in his other hand. “I don’t take risks mister, I only bank on what I’m good at and I’m plenty good at fighting.” Rolling his shoulder and neck, Jeb readied for a decent brawl. He’d had plenty before and knew the current situation had all the fixings to erupt in an exchange of blows. Carefree, the man in gray side stepped Jeb and made his way to the card table. Pulling the low hanging chair from under the counter, he sat down and plucked a set of worn playing cards from his front vest pocket.
“I ain’t asking chucklehead,” the stranger said sternly. ”I have the mind to kill you right now, as you do me. Only thing is though, you want to do it with both your hands, but me,” he smirked while shuffling, “All I’m gonna need is one good one.” Looking at the man in gray as he dealt out the cards, Jeb had the cow sense to crack this fool over his head for cutting swell with his mouth. But with no one else in the place, he decided to play along with this old devil’s swindle, knowing full well that no man could really die just from a game of cards.
“Alright you slum guzzling sally,” Jeb said defiantly, “I’ll play your hand, and if you kill me with your cards, so be it. But if I win, we get straight to fists, and I promise you this mister, I’ll strangle you until you till’ you take the big jump.” Nodding in agreement, the stranger silently pulled up his hand, organizing his cards slowly with a most deceptive poker face. Looking him over, Jeb could see that the stranger shared some similarities with him that were too interesting to overlook. Along with a scar on the top of his right hand Jeb had gotten as a baby from his no good pa’, the city slicker also had an identical tattoo inked along the small of his wrist that spelled out the name of his old sweetheart Annabelle. Organizing his poker papers, Jeb continued to examine his opponent, trying to get a read on the stranger’s hand. However, all he could notice was a pocket watch worn as buzzard-bait that happened to be Jeb’s same model along with a pair of Justins made of the exact same rattle snake leather as his own boots.
“Who was this feller?” Jeb wondered. “This my long lost brother looking to collect what saving I don’t have?” Putting his cards in order, he noticed that the stranger was striking a match with his empty hand and lighting up a quirley. “Or is this one of that charlatan Annabelle’s old customers, trying to challenge me for some false story she told him about us so long ago.” Unruffled with whoever the stranger was, Jeb couldn’t wait for this kook to try ruffle his feathers, so he could finally crack his skull straight in two. Holding up a pair of Aces, Jeb threw his other three cards on the table, waiting to be dealt a new half.
“Three?” The man in gray asked curiously.
“Looks like you studied in Oxford young sally,” Jeb replied sarcastically. Counting out three face down cards, the stranger slid them in Jeb’s direction. Two eights and a seven; that gave Jeb two pair. Liking his odds, he cracked his neck and readied his knuckles. Looking at the man in gray as he traded one card from his hand to the deck, Jeb decided it was time to brag a bit. “Well, looks like once you lay that hand down, I’m either going to fall down in my chair, dead as a jailed highwayman, or you’re about to get the last beating of your life mister.” Puffing his cigarette, the stranger maintained his straight face, waiting for Jeb to finish. “So before I bash you good, why don’t you tell me what you were up to before you met the likes of me? Let me guess gold prospector?”
Shaking his head no, the stranger let out a gritty laugh as he put out the last ashes of his cigarette. Slowly lowering his cards upside-down onto the greens the of the gambling table, the stranger gave a gump smile and separated his lips. “You still don’t know who I am do you,” he asked like a fox in a chicken pen. Bored with the stranger’s game, Jeb gave an angry sigh, slapping his cards down on the table.
“No sir I don’t, that’s why I’m askin’,” he growled while double checking his hand. Eying the pair of aces and eights, the man in gray stretched his grin to a sinister half moon, briefly glancing at the ill colored bartender before locking eyes with Jeb.
“Well Jeb, I’m what you could have been had you not given up all those years ago.” Jeb gave a tired look as the stranger went on. “What you could have been had you not turned to Rot Gut all because some painted cat broke your tiny little heart.” Lifting one brow, Jeb folded his fingers, giving ears to what ever scam this loony was trying to caw. “I’m here to be your last lesson Jeb, because you tried to trick yourself into thinking you had sand, but being savage as a meat axe don’t have anything to do with having guts. Your as yellowbellied as a robber being hemped. Never riskin’ no failure, just because you thought it might be a hazard that broke you even more.” Jeb’s eyes went wide. “No instead,” continued the stranger, “You just gullied others who were workin’ on their dreams, taking risks you never could.” Laying down two of his cards, Jeb noticed the man had put down a pair of matching eights. “Truth is though Jeb, the greatest hazard in life one can take,” dropping his other cards, the man in gray revealed a pair of aces the same as Jeb’s, “…is risking nothing.” Heart struck, Jeb began to tear up while his blood sped up and his stomach dropped as if he had the back door trots. Looking to the identical sets of cards, the stranger grinned, “Dead Man’s Hand Jeb.” Grabbing at his heart, Jeb watched as the demon in gray strutted out, his spurs spinning in the dust, before watching Jeb fall to the ground dead.
It would be several days before a visitor came and found what the coyotes left of Jeb’s body in his hut. They had sniffed out his rotting meat days before anyone dared to visit the bullying drunk and had properly taken care of baked bones. The cutters who gave him a final look over said it was a combination of too much to drink and a weak heart from trading blows with a saddle tramp the night before he passed. Now some say that to this day if you go walking in the dust farms where old Jeb once lived, that you can still hear him cursing the names of every Yankee, young couple or little tike too green to talk. But then again they all seem to use that same rumors of the old spook to recall an important lesson, the tale of Jeb the man who was too tough to risk.