Six Shooter Junction – He had a spirit bag masquerading as one of those filmy little white plastic numbers they give you at Wal-Mart to carry small purchases.
As the days of the trial wore on, he put his hand inside it and rubbed certain objects – a feather from a raptor’s wing, a piece of jade or agate picked up on a mountain slope, a claw of some woodland creature – and if you looked closely, you could see that his eyes were neither open, nor closed. He was in a rapture, a near-trance, deep in meditation.
One afternoon, while a witness droned on and the attorneys leapt like overheated hounds at points of procedural and evidentiary arcana passing in the breeze of the still and rank dragon’s breath of the courtroom, I joined him there for a few moments and saw a steep gorge and a narrow, precarious path that skirted the chasm in which I was definitely following in someone’s footsteps – and then the moment passed, and when I looked up, Billy Joe Shaver, seated at his place inside the bar, at the defense table, was staring me in the eye.
He was there to answer for his part in the kind of hassle from which only an outlaw troubadour, a wordsmith capable of writing about how a cowboy “filled up his boots with his feet,” or that when Hank sang, he sang every word, “looking right straight at me,” could emerge with any degree of aplomb, much less maintain the cool and calm demeanor of a honky tonk hero.
He was indicted for assault with a deadly weapon against a man who brandished a switchblade, stirred people’s drinks with its keenly whetted blade, and insulted his wife’s honor by suggesting in loud tones and a rude manner that on a day long before, she was the cause of a former husband’s suicide by shooting himself in the head while she was in the next room. This scene had become a routine irritation, whenever the couple appeared together in public in and around Waco or its southern suburbs. The old boy who shot himself had a large family.
The truth emerged, little by little, that the defendant, who was of an age that if convicted and sentenced to serve a lengthy prison term, would probably spend his last days behind bars, was actually acting in self defense, as his attorney Dick DeGuerin had told the jurors in his opening statement. There was no dispute that while he and his wife Wanda had been out drinking a beer at a neighborhood bar on open mike night, Billy Joe shot their interlocutor in the mouth with a tiny .22 revolver, a derringer you could conceal in the palm of your hand.
It was the source of the difficulty, not the little revolver, but what was coming out of the man’s mouth; that was not its only ramification, as it turned out.
Quite simply, once the deed was done, Shaver collected his wife, got in his car, and split, headed for Austin. He didn’t see any need to stick around, and he had his reasons. Jurors acquitted him of the charge. He later plead guilty to possession of a firearm in a place where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed, a minor crime that is hardly of the magnitude of a first class felony.
After a considerable length of time – way more than a year – I got one of those once-in-a-lifetime interviews scribblers rarely see, the one where the person the scribbler intended to interview actually interviews the scribbler. It was as if on an ordinary journey, bearing the wood, bearing the water, I crossed paths with the Bodhisattva, who awaited me at an obscure turn on that precipitous path I had started down so many moons in the past. Howdy, there.
In the hardware section of a local lumber yard, I shopped for a work light to use in shooting video, and, absorbed with the task, looked up once again to confront Billy Joe Shaver lamping me down the length of a considerable beak, the kind that labels a man as a breed. His father was a Black Foot.
This time, he was smiling, where before on that day in the court, he was frankly staring at an intruder in his world.
On the time line of the legendary, there are infrequent and obscure deadlines, syncopating punctuations that are hard to discern – abbreviated moments in time, for which one waits.
“I just now remember who you are,” he said, as if resuming a conversation interrupted only a few moments before. “You’re that old boy from down at Houston, always doing things with words, aren’t you?”
Yes, that’s me. I reminded him we met during an obscure year at an old and long-forgotten bar downtown in the Bayou City, not far from the courthouse square, where songwriters showcased their wares several decades in the past. We talked about how Elvis during a performance made everyone feel like he was looking at them, and so did Hank Williams. Many people who caught their act have said so.
“I have something I want you to know about what happened,” Shaver said. “That night I shot that old boy, I didn’t say, ‘Where do you want it?’”
He paused, let that sink in. His antagonist had invited him to see him out back, and Shaver made a bee line for the door after first going to his car to leave, then changing his mind. He wanted to let his eyes adjust to the darkened porch and picnic area after the neon and stage lights of the bar. It was a show down, and not one he necessarily provoked. Watch this.
In a verse of a song he inscribed, “Wacko From Waco,” he said, “I don’t start fights; I finish fights, and that’s the way it’s always been.” Had I heard it? I pronounced the new song smoking.
And, then, out of the blue, apropos nothing, he said it was not until his challenger drew a pistol and aimed it that he defended himself with his firearm. Blow me down.
“And yet, that was nowhere mentioned in the officers’ testimony or any of the witnesses’,” I replied. “Why didn’t you tell them?”
“They didn’t ask,” Shaver replied. The statement hung in the air like Spanish moss in a mighty oak, the kind germinated prior to the coronation of Elizabeth I. He looked as deadly serious as any serious man to whom I have ever spoken about any serious matter. I never asked him. At least, not with words. He told me.
I’ve kept that rock in my hand – until now – because I knew there would be a better time to play it, a time when it would count. There is a reason for that. It’s a lesson taught by one old boy who does things with words to another old boy – one who does things with words. I am truly grateful. Somebody tell those folks in Austin. Remind them, too. They seem to be in a mood to call the question, the one about “wearing” firearms openly, so stipulated in the Texas Constitution.
That’s what I thought about while I napped and Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson sang and played new songs on the David Letterman Show. When it comes to carrying a gun, there are things you don’t tell the courthouse clique – unless they ask. So mote it be.
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