The red-bearded bartender swung his freckled face toward the tall, dark man in a calico shirt and smoke-stained buckskin trousers just then pushing through the batwings of the Horsetooth Saloon & Hotel, and said, “Pardon me all to hell, breed, but you’d best take two steps back the way you came and read the sign posted to the front wall there!”
Yakima Henry stared at the bar tender. The man stared back at him, frowning belligerently, a cleaver in one hand, a chunk of bloody rabbit in the other. There were a half dozen other men in the dim, dingy place--three at a table near the front of the room, two more at a table near the bar, two more near the cold, potbelly stove. No fire was needed. The dry desert air was hot and oppressive, mixing the smells of the pent up saloon—raw meat, hot bodies, coal oil, tobacco, and cheap liquor--until it smelled like a bear den. The three at the near table, all hard-bitten, pie-eyed men in cheap suits ensconced in billowing clouds of cigarette smoke, stared at Yakima with expressions that were a nasty hybrid of distaste and cruel delight.
A dog had just sauntered into their camp. They didn’t like dogs.
“You hear me, breed?” the barman said. “Step back out there and read the cotton-pickin’ sign. I put it up there for a reason!”
Yakima gave a sheepish smile. “I reckon you’re gonna have to come on out and read it for me, mister.”
“Can’t read, huh?”
The three men in cheap suits, which marked them as salesmen of a sort, chuckled and snickered though Yakima doubted they could read half as well as he’d taught himself to, from whatever books he’d been able to get his hands on over his long years on the remote western frontier.
He doubted the bar tender could read as well as he could, either.
The barman sighed with strained tolerance, plopped the meat chunk into the pot, and set the cleaver down on the bar. As he walked out from behind the counter, he wiped his hands on his apron though Yakima doubted anyone could actually clean his hands on such a badly stained stretch of tattered cloth.
The barman was several inches short of six feet, but he was built like two rain barrel-sized slabs of suet sitting one atop the other. He smelled like sweat, raw meat, and whiskey. As he stepped out from behind the bar, he gave his hands another scrub on the apron that was so badly stained it was impossible to discern its original color, and strode past Yakima and out the batwings, holding the left wing open as he pointed.
“There it is right there. Come on out there--I’ll give you a little lesson in English.”
He beckoned to Yakima. The half-breed shrugged, stepped halfway through the batwings, and followed the man’s pale, pudgy finger to the sign nailed to the front wall right of the doors. It was a rough pine board on which someone had hand-painted blocky letters in dark-green trimmed liberally with dried drips.
The portly barman pointed out each word in turn as he read, “If yor skin is any darker than these dors”--he paused and slapped the top of the sun-bleached batwing he was holding open--“then you can kiss my ass and point your hat in the opposite direkshun!”
The men inside the saloon laughed.
The barman opened his mouth to show his teeth and then he laughed, as well, thoroughly delighted with himself.
“Give me your hand,” he told Yakima, as though he were speaking to a moron.
Yakima glanced at the other customers, gave another sheepish hike of his right shoulder, and then gave the man his right hand.
“That’s it--there you go. You’re catchin’ on.” The barman held Yakima’s hand, which was nearly the color of an old penny--heavily callused, scarred, and weathered--up beside the batwing door.
The bartender clucked and shook his head as though the contrast saddened him. “No, no. Now, you see there--that skin of yours is about seven, eight shades darker than these here doors. That means you’re about as welcome on these premises as a goddamn full-blood Apache. Why, you’re no more welcome here than Geronimo himself. You see?”
He grinned at Yakima, who stood a whole half a head taller. Yakima stared down at the fat man from beneath the flat brim of his low-crowned, broad-brimmed, black Stetson.
Yakima pulled his hand from the bar tender’s grip and used it to indicate the words painted on the pine board. “The sign says I should kiss—your—ass, don’t it?”
The man’s smile faltered and a slight flush pinkened the nubs of his fat, freckled cheeks. “Say again?”
“The sign there says that if my skin is any darker than these doors, I should kiss your ass.”
The barman gave a nervous chuckle, snorted, and glanced at the sign. “Well, now, that it does, that it does.”
The men inside had fallen silent. They were all holding their drinks and cigarettes or cigars in their hands and staring with bright-eyed interest at the doings at the doors.
“Well, then,” Yakima said. “Let’s step inside so I can do the honors.”
“I said, let’s go inside so I can kiss your ass like the sign says.”
The barman stared up at him, but now his smile looked glued on and his cheeks were growing pinker. The men inside were snickering, one lightly slapping the back of his hand against his partner’s shoulder. Yakima held the barman’s gaze with a stony one of his own.
“What’re you talkin’ about?” the barman said.
“Isn’t that what the sign says?”
From inside, one of the card players said, “Come on in, Clancy. If the breed wants to kiss your ass, let him kiss your ass. We’ll watch to make sure he does it proper.”
The barman stared up at Yakima, his smile fading fast though the flush was still building in his cheeks, darkening his freckles. He rolled his eyes around, and then sucked his lower lip and pooched out his cheeks and gave a fake laugh, as though the joke were still on the half-breed, and said, “Well, hell, yeah! That is what the sign says, all right!”
He laughed and walked inside the saloon and stopped and faced the bar. “Okay, there you go, Injun. Pucker up now!”
He looked at the card players and the two men farther back in the room who were watching with keen interest now, as well. The barman winked at the card players and snorted another nervous laugh. “I want a nice soft one there on my left cheek.” He leaned forward and patted his butt cheek.
“Best drop your trousers,” Yakima said, standing in front of the batwings, thumbs hooked behind his two cartridge belts. “So I can do it proper.”
“Go ahead, Clancy,” one of the card players said, laughing with the others. “Drop your pants so the breed can kiss your ass proper!”
He whooped as the others laughed and yelled.
“Go ahead, Clancy.”
“Pull ‘em down, Clancy--what’re you waiting for?”
“Oh, this is plush,” said one of the others. “This is pure-dee plush! Pull ‘em down, Clancy. Give him your fat, white ass so’s he can lay a kiss on it!”