Main Street was empty that morning but fer two old codgers half-asleep on the bench in front of Mak’s General Store. One of the ancients was Horace Bigelow and the other one was me. Fer a while, we’d been watching the forest fire in the hills out east of town, but the wind was from the west. The flames wouldn’t be coming this way. No excitement there.
I elbowed my lifelong friend, sharp-like.
“Wake up, sleepyhead. Here comes Alice.”
Horace perked right up at that. There weren’t much to the town of Hister; a fellow didn’t want to miss what entertainment there was, and Alice Doughby was most of it. A sight fer sore eyes, that girl. Long brown hair, big brown eyes, the sort of figure to make young bucks go to war and men our age go to drooling.
A mighty hardworking lass, too. Alice worked nights at the Palace Saloon as a dance hall girl, early mornings at the Palace Hotel as a maid, and on into midafternoon helping Samuel in the General Store. If she got five, six hours sleep a day, she was lucky–and during the heat of the day at that.
We watched her coming, jist as we’d be watching her going a few hours later.
Usually. Today, trouble come to call. Crazy Phillip must have been lying in wait fer her. He stepped out of the alley, moving quick in those long strides of his, angling to head off Miss Alice like she was some wandering cow out on the prairie.
“Miss Alice,” he said to her, kind of mean like–purty near everything Crazy Phillip said come out mean.
Well now, Alice Doughby might work the dance hall, but she weren’t no gal to take guff from nobody. She jist sorta sidestepped like she was going on around him, ignoring the man as it were. Which is when the feller done what he ought not to’ve done, and put his hands on the woman. One hand,anyway, grabbed at her shoulder like he figgered he had the right.
“Take yer hands offen the lady.”
I looked around, not real surprised. Horace didn’t look sleepy no more. He was on his feet, and his challenge sort of electrified things. To shorten up the story a bit–I have a bad tendency to fill in way too many details before I git to the point–Phillip did let go of the girl. Somehow he and my elderly best friend had agreed to fisticuffs at high noon, which wouldn’t be the normal way of things, but Horace had explained something about a prior obligation. That meant they’d be meeting out in the middle of this same street in a couple of hours under the blazing sun, squaring off like a couple of schoolkids, except somebody could die in this obvious mismatch.
Next thing I knew, Alice Doughby had gone on into the General Store, Horace Bigelow was headed for his room in the Palace Hotel, and me? Of all things, I’d invited Crazy Phillip Snodgrass, burly bully of Hister, to set a bit. Even shared my tobacco with him, anything to get him to listen. I knew the young man didn’t understand about Horace’s insane need to speak up fer a lady in distress no matter the odds or the consequences.
Dammit, I had to save the fool’s life if I could.
“You don’t want me to fight yer friend,” Snodgrass observed sagely. “Do ya?”
“No,” I agreed simply, “That I do not.”
He seemed to understand. After all, Horace Bigelow’s old bones would likely snap like sticks in a high wind. His mouth had always gotten him into trouble. Crazy Phillip Snodgrass had done more than a hundred beatdowns we knew about, including at least two of which resulted in his opponent visiting the undertaker as a paying customer. He was not only fifty years younger than old Bigmouth Bigelow, he was at least fifty pounds heavier as well.
“He shouldn’t a called me out.”
“No,” I said. “He shouldn’t have done that.”
Then I proceeded to tell him a bit of Horace’s fighting history, such as it was. We was still little kids in school when I first saw him…okay, here’s how it went. First time, he got into it with Warren Wilcox. Warren was half his size and two years younger, but all he did was hit Horace one time in the nose, and Horace quit. Not exactly all catamount, my friend Horace. He didn’t git called coward fer that one, but the other kids decided he was nothing but a weakling.
Then the following year, a danged girl called him out. I don’t remember what he’d done, but he went and locked himself in the outhouse, refused to fight her until a couple of the older boys threatened him outa there by overturning the building. He got the message and opened the door then, crawled outa there all redfaced, and hadda stand up against his classmate. Not that he lost against Sharon; I ain’t saying he was that bad, but he surely didn’t git no glory from it, neither.
Finally, jist about the time we was calling ourselves full grown men and believing it, he’d found himself a set, more or less, and called out this fella–what was his name? Potter, Peter, something like that. Potter had caught him dead drunk the night before, pounded him a little, and he wanted a rematch. Wasn’t doing too bad, neither, till another guy, a big fat kid, took over fer Potter. Knocked Horace down, set on his face with that big fat butt, and farted on him.
“He farted on him?!” Crazy Phillip started laughing hysterically at that one, dang near swallowed his chew.
“No wonder you don’t want him to have to fight me!” He spluttered helplessly, finally regained some semblance of control, then added seriously, “He shouldn’t a called me out.”
Well, Hell, I tried. It was too late now. Horace had exited the Palace and was now back out in the street, looking all hunched over, pitiful, not even daring to stare Phillip Snodgrass in the eye. His fists were all crunched up under his own chin, more a posture of please don’t hit me than anything else. I hated to see what was coming; I surely did.
The bigger, younger man advanced on my friend with the care of a born warrior who knows not to take any opponent lightly, not even a frail-looking old codger like Horace Bigelow. When they come together, Snodgrass didn’t jist look bigger than Bigelow; he looked huge. He towered over the little old guy. How could he do this? Where was his sense of humanity?
It only took one punch.
I knelt by the fallen form in the street, staring down in pity at the dying man. “Phillip Snodgrass,” I told him, knowing he could still hear me even though the ruptured diaphragm meant he’d not be able to talk back, “I tried to tell you. It’s my fault yer headed fer the other side, me jist filling in way too many details and never quite gittin’ around to the point. See, that hunched posture Horace had when you walked right up on him like that? That was hiding the file-sharpened spike he was gripping in one hand.”
It was no use; I was talking to myself. Crazy Phillip Snodgrass had gone to the great beyond. Being the local undertaker, I could bury him on Boot Hill with no questions asked, nobody wondering too much how a feeble old geezer like Horace Bigelow could have killed a known fighter like that with a single swing of a fist.
Main Street was empty that morning but fer two old codgers half-asleep on the bench in front of Mak’s General Store. One of the ancients was Horace Bigelow and the other one was me.
“They’ll never learn, will they?” I asked my friend.
“Reckon not,” he agreed.
We repeated the ancient truism together: “Never fight an old person. He’ll know he cain’t fight you…so he’ll jist kill you.”
“Heads up,” I told him.
“Here comes Alice.”