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The Orneriest Man in Albuquerque
The stranger kicked open the saloon door. “I’m looking for The Orneriest Man in Albuquerque.”
The piano player stopped. We all stared into our glasses. The bartender put his hands below the counter and grabbed onto his shotgun.
The stranger’s hat scraped the top of the door frame and his face and hands were sunburnt and peeling. With each step, trail dust cascaded down from his dungarees.
“Which one o’ you is it?” The stranger fingered the dirty Colt revolver that hung from his hip. “I got a bone to pick with The Orneriest Man in Albuquerque and I hear tell he’s in here drinkin’.”
No one spoke, no one even looked at him.
“Now that ain’t polite.” He grabbed old Bill by the shoulders and picked him up off his barstool until his feet dangled. Bill shook like the leaves of a quaking aspen, right down to the moustache on his face. “Old man. Where is The Orneriest Man in Albuquerque?”
“He ain’t here.” The bartender had his shotgun pointed at the stranger. “So put down my customer and get out.”
The stranger glanced at the gun and lowered Bill back onto his bar stool. “I ain’t afraid of no gun.”
“You should be,” said the bartender. His bald head was shining with sweat. “What do you want to see the ol’ Ornery for anyway?”
“He stole my brother Hank’s horse. He rustled his steers. And I saw him climbin’ out the window with Hank’s wife’s jewelry box and a… a bundle of her knickers.”
The patrons made a few titters but none very close to the stranger.
“Hank tried to stop him, but he lasso’d Hank and dragged him through the pigsty by his ankles. I’m sure he still smells of pig shit.”
More titters and a few snorts.
“And worst of all,” said the stranger, his face going red, “worst of all, he got a bucket of paint and drew an ob-scene picture on the side of the barn. Of a man’s… personal member!”
The entire bar roared with laughter.
The stranger’s veins bulged and he drew his pistol and grabbed the old man. “Tell me where to find that ugly, low-down son-of-a-bitch, or I’ll blow this geezer’s head clean off. I’ll do it!”
The bartender lowered the shotgun. “Easy. Easy, there. Hey, Ornery, you best come out and settle this. Your mess ain’t ours.”
From the back room behind the bar, two heavy boots hit the floor. With each step, spurs jangled. A dark shape loomed in the doorway, but stayed in the shadows. “What’dya want?”
“The steers. The horse. The womanly things. You’ve dishonored my family, and you’ll pay it all back. With interest.”
The shadow stepped forward and with a flourish, removed its hat. Long, wild ginger hair fell over her shoulders and onto a man’s suspenders, undershirt, and overalls.
“Joanna. But… how can you be the—”
“The Orneriest Man in Albuquerque? Cause I ain’t a man.” She pulled back her hair into a ponytail, and even in a man’s clothes, she was still the prettiest girl any of us old-timers had seen. “That’s the joke.”
“But you and Hank—”
“Hank’s getting what he deserved.”
“He said you broke off the engagement.”
“I did, after I caught him rolling in the straw with that hussy from down the road. The one he married.” She spat on the floor.
“Oh yes he would. Why’dya think he didn’t come after his stuff himself? He knew who I was and why I was there. But he sent you, Big Jimmy, to fix his problem. Big Jim. Ain’t you getting tired of that?”
The stranger stumbled backward like he’d been bit by a rattler. I jumped up and got a barstool under him and we sat him at the bar.
He pushed back his hat and wiped his forehead, sending a trail of dust down his back. “I… I can’t believe—”
Joanna leaned in from the other side of the bar. She spoke at a whisper. “Ain’t you? Ain’t you able to take what you want, when it’s right there… in front of you?”
The big man looked up into her blue eyes, only inches from his. He cleared his throat. “In that there jewelry box, did you happen to find my ma and pa’s old wedding rings?”
And she leaned in and kissed him, right there on the lips. Which was a bit forward, but then again, she was the Orneriest Man in Albuquerque.