Note: This is the first chapter of Trouble in Taos by Headley Hauser.
So now we’re a town.
Taos has been around for four hundred years, and I’ve been living in it for sixty years. But we were just living in a bunch of buildings all this time. Now we’re finally a town.
I don’t see much of a difference. Sure, we have more art galleries than saloons now, but that’s been true for fifteen years. Sometimes people just feel a need to name and number things that were just fine without them. Instead of heading down to the courthouse, you can go to 400 Camino De La Placita. It doesn’t help you know where you’re going, it just sounds more town-like.
Frenchie White Feathers took me out in his truck to the Hemmings Ranch this morning. I’m sure the road has a name now, but it’s still just the road to the Hemmings Ranch to me. We took a load of picture frames to the artists there. I used to rent a wagon from the livery to do that, but there are too many automobiles, and I’m too old to control spooked horses. Frenchie rolls with the times better than I do. It must be his continental blood.
I like the Hemmings place. They’ve got the oldest flush toilet in the territory. It used to be one of the wonders of the world. Now it’s just old and not too reliable, though the seat is more comfortable now that forty years of behinds have worn it down.
I stopped at Carson’s Mercantile. It used to be Basset’s Mercantile before Norry changed the name for the tourist trade. There was a rack of dime novels about Kit Carson right by the counter. It’s always good to have toilet paper, so I compared the different editions for softness and number of pages. That’s when I saw it: Slimy Beach, the Tornado of Taos, by W. G. C. R. Colmes.
Now, I’ve read dime novels and heard fearsome stories about Billy the Kid and Jesse James. It’s hard to judge which gunfighter was the toughest. I never saw Billy in action, and I never even met Jessie, but I knew his brother, Frank. Frank and I agreed that the one man you most feared crossing was Slimy Beach.
Slimy killed more men than any three gunslingers I’ve ever heard of. His twin double-barreled sawed-off shotguns looked scary as hell even lying on the bar. They looked even scarier flashing in Slimy’s hands. Even without them, no man in his right mind would get within horseshoe-tossing range of Slimy. He smelled worse than a skunk and was the most boring man alive.
No man in his right mind but me, that is. Slimy was my best friend.
I picked up the Slimy book. There weren’t a lot of pages, but they were nice and soft. Norry Basset gave me a wink. I wanted to punch him in the nose, but I winked back because bad things happen when small, eighty-six-year-old men punch large, middle-aged storekeepers.
I put my dime on the counter and, without asking permission, headed straight for Norry’s crapper.
“Walter,” Norry called, “why don’t you wait ’til the Sears and Roebuck catalog comes in before you use my toilet? The pages don’t clog up the works so much.”
I pretended not to hear him. There are advantages to being old. No one can say for sure what you hear and what you don’t.
Norry installed an expensive brass crapper back before Wall Street crapped on the country. It was one of the fanciest bits of seating I’ve ever been pleased to utilize, but it was too high off the ground for my taste. I guess a big man like Norry likes to keep his knees from cramping. It’s a good thing he didn’t have children. A three-year-old might fall right in a toilet that size.
I climbed up to take a seat and cracked the cover of my new purchase. The book had the usual illustrations of horses, saddles, and six guns you see in every western dime novel. I’d never seen Slimy shoot a six-shot Colt in my life. It wasn’t a promising start.
The text wasn’t any better. According to W. G. Chesterson Rawhide Colmes, Slimy was a large brawny brute with fists like railroad sledges. Such a statement indicated that Mr. Colmes probably acquired his “rawhide” from sitting on a barstool in Philadelphia.
I’ve been accused of being an ounce shy of pint-sized, but at five foot three, I had the clear better of Slimy Beach. Slimy’s railroad sledge hands were smaller than I’d seen on a few ten year old boys, and I imagine there were a few boys that age that could whip Slimy in a fair fight.
Slimy didn’t believe in fighting fair.
His perfidious reign of justice began when Beach was only fourteen. The rapacious giant, Mike Finn, forced his unwanted attention on Miss Purity Homebody, Beach’s beloved schoolmistress. Finn was an infamous brawler who routinely killed and maimed men with his bare hands. Young Beach traded thunderous blows with the titanic Finn before the exhausted villain reached for his gun. Beach drew his pearl-handled Colt 45 and spun the weapon twice in his hand – just to give his opponent a chance. Slimy Beach dropped that evil violator of feminine virtue with one shot through the eye. So the legend began.
W. G. C. R. Colmes, Slimy Beach, the Tornado of Taos, p.18
Well, the page was nice and soft anyway, but Norry was right. The pipes of the fancy brass throne didn’t sound too pleased after I flushed.
Just in case a flood was coming, I skedaddled as fast as an old fart can.
I wasn’t there when Slimy shot Mike Finn; I was still trying to make it as a painter in New York. But everyone who was there (and ones who weren’t) was happy to tell me the tale.
Colmes had a few things right, Finn was the first man Slimy shot, and from what I understand, he was a good-sized man, being the village blacksmith.
According to Two-Bucket Joe (one of the ones that was really there), Slimy and Finn were sitting at the bar. Slimy was never much of a drinking man, but he loved to sit in a saloon. Slimy was telling Finn about his watch. Slimy, like many people who weren’t very bright, liked to advertise it by telling stories. One of his favorite themes was his watch, and I don’t doubt that Finn had heard the story more than he cared to.
I should probably tell you about Slimy’s watch, because it was the thing he was proudest to own. According to Slimy, his dear mother bought him that watch for his seventh birthday, spending the entire sum of five Confederate dollars.
Slimy turned seven in the fall of 1864, and by that time Confederate money wasn’t worth much anymore, but you could never convince Slimy of that fact. He always emphasized the word Confederate to impress on his listener the tremendous value of the watch in question. Confederate money was, to Slimy, the finest money there ever was. In his adult years, he insisted on being paid in Confederate scrip, as opposed to silver or federal money. Slimy hoarded his Confederate funds and never spent a single Jeff Davis if he had any worthless Yankee notes to spend instead.
The watch was made of tin, and the glass was long gone. By the time I saw it, the minute hand was gone. Slimy told me how he loved to hear it ticking, but I don’t think the watch worked past his eighth birthday. Though he missed the ticking, Slimy didn’t care about the watch not working. He never learned to tell the time.
So Slimy was sitting at the bar with Mike Finn, trying to interest the blacksmith in the virtues of his watch. I’m told that Mike was a patient man, but he had had enough.
“I tell you, Slimy,” said Mike, “I know as much as I care to about that watch of yours, and I’m sick of hearing about it. I’d much rather look at Flossy.”
I suppose W. G. C. R. Colmes was referring to Flossy when he wrote about Miss Purity Homebody, Slimy’s schoolmistress. I met Flossy years later, and I’m pretty sure she was never a schoolmistress. Learning and purity were not the first thoughts that came to a man’s head on making Flossy’s acquaintance.
Not that Flossy was what you’d call a pretty woman. Broken and dented as it was, I’d have to say that Slimy’s watch had a more pleasing face. But being out west makes a man lonely, and many a frontier man was happy to settle for cow pie if the only other choice was no pie at all. Mike Finn, like many others, used his imagination to make up for Flossy’s unfortunate shortcomings.
Now that I think about it, I don’t recall any schoolmistress in Taos ’til long after Mike Finn’s muscular frame was reduced to bones and dust. There was a feller, a schoolmaster I suppose, that taught some of the children at Saint Frank’s. I don’t know if I ever met him. I don’t think he was there very long.
But back to the story. I’m pretty sure Slimy never thought of taking up fisticuffs to defend Miss Flossy’s honor. Being so small, Slimy was not one to resort to fisticuffs if he could avoid it, and certainly not with the village blacksmith. Furthermore, Flossy was not the sort of woman who expected, or even desired, men to defend her honor. That would be economically inconvenient.
It wasn’t the liberties Mike Finn took with Flossy that irked Slimy; Slimy just never could tolerate being ignored.
Slimy grabbed the barkeep’s scattergun from the top of the bar and shot Mike Finn dead. He also winged two poker players and shattered the chair that Claybourne Petree, the undertaker, was about to sit in. According to Two-Bucket Joe, Claybourne was pretty scared for a minute, but took it pretty well. Of course, he got some business out of the deal.
This was Slimy’s first killing, and it came as a surprise to the people of Taos. He’d been in town a year or two and was, after his own fashion, a successful businessman. People found him tedious, and nobody liked the way he smelled, but no one thought of him as dangerous before.
Slimy grunted an apology for the mess and offered the smoking scattergun back to Estevo, the bartender.
Estevo, not a man known for his courage, failed to take it.
Looking back, a lot of lives might have been saved if Estevo had reached over and taken that shotgun from Slimy. Others might point fingers, but I'll wager that not a single one of his accusers ever ran a saloon in a 19th-century western town. Bartenders dealt with the rowdiest (and drunkest) characters in what was already an unruly and violent environment. Lawmen rarely spent time in saloons, and it wasn’t because there was more business elsewhere. They knew that if you sat around in a bar with a gun and a badge, someone would eventually think it a good idea to take a shot at you – maybe in the back.
Bartenders like Estevo didn’t have a friendly jailhouse to retreat to. If they started disarming their clientele, some clever fellow might figure things out. If he managed to smuggle one gun into an unarmed bar, the only thing he needed to do to be king of the bar was kill the bartender.
I’m sure there were a few brave bartenders in the West. A couple might’ve lasted a year. Estevo lived to sixty-eight and would have lived even longer if he hadn’t eaten his way to three hundred pounds by the time he was fifty.
It was a younger, slimmer Estevo who said to Slimy that day, “No, Mr. Beach. Please don’t be concerned about the mess. Accept the shotgun as my gift. Here…” And at that point, Estevo reached under the bar and produced a matching weapon. “Please accept this one as well.”
“That’s nice of ya, Estevo,” said Slimy. “Thanks.”
Ordinarily, even back then, there was some fuss when one man shot another in cold blood. Most people figured a hanging might be the proper thing to do, or at least a search to find the sheriff, who habitually left town whenever he heard gunshots. He could usually be found after a day or two at Miss Katherine’s House of Comfort.
It was Estevo’s response that changed the mood. At least it confused the thinking of men who were already in a group stupor from Estevo’s mud, a mixture of beer, whisky, cider, turpentine, and tobacco juice. (The tobacco juice was mostly from the backwash of half-empty glasses, the contents of which were the main ingredient in mud.) It wasn’t just Estevo’s mud and mood that confused those present. Estevo was what passed for an educated man in those days.
Estevo spoke Spanish, English, Tiwa, and a couple other Indian languages to boot. He could even read and write a little. He was also an inventor, if you consider mud an invention, and Two-Bucket Joe, along with the others present, figured that any man with such intellectual accomplishments had to know more about the law than they did. If he hadn’t been such a coward, Estevo might have been mayor, or even the territory governor – or more likely just dead.
But this story is not about Estevo, who really wasn’t all that interesting; it’s about Slimy, who was even less interesting. Slimy had shot a perfectly good blacksmith, and blacksmiths were pretty useful and hard to come by in the West. Not only that, he wounded two poker players and destroyed what was, by western standards, a very fine chair.
The poker players were understandably annoyed until one noticed that the blast also surprised Lefty Hagar enough to drop his extra hold card from his sleeve. Lefty was a man of uncommon luck, which is to say, a real unpopular guy. Those who had the most cause to call for Slimy’s hanging were perfectly happy to trade a cold-blooded murderer on the gallows for a card cheat. The point, according to Two-Bucket Joe, was to have a hanging, and when it comes to people who needed hanging, card cheats come first.
Jacques de Tiwa, a man who claimed to be the son of Maximillian, the dead ex-Emperor of Mexico, went down to Miss Katherine’s to wait for the sheriff to show up. The injured gamblers split Lefty’s winnings and purchased bottles of real whiskey to treat the house. After the second round, most people had not only forgiven Slimy, but thought him a fine, though smelly, fellow. Some even admired his watch.
Mike Finn was lying there dead. There were bits of him still hanging on the bar, and being such a large man, he was hard to step around and even harder to ignore. Mike didn’t have any family, so no one knew exactly what to do with him. Claybourne Petree, who you might remember was the undertaker and had the chair shot out from under him, searched the body to see if Finn had enough money on him to pay for a decent casket and hole. It turned out that Mike’s pockets were bulging with silver. No one knew that the smith was such a rich man.
Of course, some of that silver went for more whisky, which greatly relieved Estevo who had lost two shotguns and a nice chair in the business. The blacksmith’s inflated fees became the topic of conversation. Finn’s fortune was sufficient to supply a first class funeral, a good drunk for a rapidly crowded barroom, and even a couple silver dollars to compensate Flossy for her loss of business.
By the time Sheriff Quick (who was quick only in the sense that he wasn’t dead) arrived, Claybourne had Finn’s body at the mortuary. Estevo had cleaned up most of the blood and other body parts, and the universal opinion (with the exception of the doomed card-cheat Lefty Hagar) was that Slimy had done no great harm. After the sheriff downed a tumbler of real whisky, he agreed, told Slimy to be careful with those shotguns, and hauled Lefty off to the jailhouse.
I don’t know where W. G. C. R. Colmes got the bit about Slimy using a pearl-handled Colt to shoot Mike Finn. I’ve only seen Slimy handle a Colt once in my life, and that was to bludgeon a man who was unfortunate enough to stand between Slimy and someone he was shooting at. The poor bystander was gut shot, and so he was going to die anyway, but Slimy didn’t club him to put him out of his misery. The man was too absorbed in his wounds to pay proper attention to Slimy’s story about the dog his mother almost bought him just before the family was run out of Arkansas.