Gunplay

Re-enactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone, Arizona, January 2008. (Credit: James G. Howes / Wikimedia Commons)

Re-enactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone, Arizona, January 2008. (Credit: James G. Howes / Wikimedia Commons)

Walt Longmire is Sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming in Craig Johnson’s popular mystery series. His best friend, Henry Standing Bear—aka The Cheyenne Nation—owns the Red Pony bar at the intersection of town and reservation. The bar is empty, except for Henry and Walt, on a cold Thanksgiving night. Henry is cooking the holiday turkey and fixings out back while Walt sips a beer (or two) and watches a football game on TV between the Chiefs and the Broncos. The Chiefs are losing, again.

Thanksgiving is not The Cheyenne Nation’s favorite holiday. He calls it Thankstaking.

A stranger enters the bar and orders a beer. He’s a “bearded young man in stained, frayed Carhartt overalls.” After serving the stranger his beer, Henry goes outside to check on the turkey and to check out the stranger’s pickup truck. He sees a woman and small child asleep inside the parked truck.

Henry returns to the bar just as the young man pulls a gun on Walt, saying he needs money for gas and food. “I don’t normally do this kind of thing . . . I’ve got a wife and kid. I mean this is not who I am. I lost my job and I need to get back to Elko.”  

Walt has his Colt .45 at the ready, and Henry has his Ithaca 10-gauge double-barrel shotgun within reach. It doesn’t look promising for the nervous young man pointing a 9mm semiautomatic handgun at two well-armed men, both experienced in the art of combat. By the logic of violence, someone is going to get shot and it isn’t going to be Walt or Henry. “By all accounts, the young man was dead and he didn’t even know it.” But the young man with the handgun needs money.

Something unexpected happens, something other than gunplay. Henry offers to buy the young man’s gun with the $470.85 in his cash register. The young man is surprised by the gesture but says he can’t sell his gun because he is using it at the moment. Henry replies by saying he is offering the young man an alternative to all the other options that “will end badly for you.”

The young man accepts the deal but demands the money first. Henry agrees but draws the money back when the young man reaches for it, saying, “There is one last thing, though.” Henry will purchase the gun on the condition that the young man brings his wife and child in from the cold to join Henry and Walt for Thanksgiving dinner. “We are about to eat, and there is too much food.” The young man relaxes a little and replies, “We don’t want to be a bother.” Henry (who never speaks in contractions) says, “It is not a bother . . . It is a deal.”

The young man—no longer just a stranger—gives up his gun, pockets the money, and goes outside to retrieve his sleeping family as part of the deal.

“Thankstaking” is one of twelve Longmire short stories collected in Craig Johnson’s Wait for Signs (Viking 2014, pp. 132-42). The story calls attention to the logic of violence by transcending it. Henry turns an implicit syllogism—the inevitable outcome of gunplay—into a fallacy. Even for these violent men, being provoked does not require a response in kind, especially when they have bigger and more guns than the other guy. The other guy, the stranger, turns out to be more than just a stereotypical bad guy. Circumstances had driven him into a corner, at least it seemed that way to him.

Who better than an Indian might think of a dignified way out of the impasse? The rest of us should take note of Henry Standing Bear’s turnabout. It is a sign of alternatives to the frontier mentality, which are available to all of us for the giving and the taking.

RLI

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