The Lion and The Lamb
By Kevin Gonzalez
Grat Farley knew in advance when he became the owner of the saloon known as The Water Hole that there would be days when he had to fill in for the hired help that had up and quit on him with little or no notice at all. Which explained why Farley was pulling brews and serving shots of whiskey wearing an apron, not poring over the books dressed in a suit and tie, on the day that he met Jim Levy.
The gunman was not hard to notice. His cheeks were pocked with two large craters of scar tissue, one on either side, the result of a wound inflicted in his gun battle with Mike Casey some 11 years ago in Pioche, Nevada. Casey had called him out to settle a dispute, even though Levy was not carrying a gun at the time. Levy returned after he armed himself and the battle began. After he had shot and killed Casey, a friend of the dead man, Dave Neagle, shot at him, putting a slug sideways through Levy’s face. He lost what little in the way of good looks he had possessed plus some wisdom teeth, but survived. The massive scarring had done nothing to improve a bad temper that had a direct link to his trigger finger.
The gunfight had another drastic effect on his life. Levy, the son of Jewish parents who had emigrated from Ireland in 1842, gave up being a miner and became a professional gunman who "regulated" disputes. Word was, that in over 10 years he had emerged as the winner in 16 armed debates. During leaner times when his prowess as a pistoleer went wanting, he found employment at the gambling tables. One newspaper account described him as a "pistolferous gambler."
"See something you don’t like, mister?" A glare that matched the surly tone came with the words.
Farley realized he had been staring at Levy while recollecting the background of the gunman. Thinking quickly, he said, "No sir. Just wondering if the gentleman over at the booth needed to refresh his drink."
The bar owner was referring to a short, slight man, dressed in a black bowler and gray wool suit despite the heat of a summer day, who was nursing a bottle of sarsaparilla. Solomon Pliskin seldom ventured into a saloon, but had no recourse when he felt the craving for the cool, sparkling sweet soda of which he had become so fond in this new land he was calling home.
"Why not?" answered Pliskin, hoisting the bottle in a toast. "Today I celebrate. My town council has granted me a permit to expand my store and I have just finished a deal to double my inventory because Moshe Kargman retires and needs the money. How do you say – set me up with another? And please, a drink for the gentleman at the bar."
"You funning me, mister?" Levy stared at Pliskin’s reflection in the mirror that hung over the bar. "My drink’s whiskey, not soda pop."
"I would as soon as make a Seder couch out of a cactus," said Pliskin, referring to a Passover custom of reclining while eating. "No one would make fun of the famous Jim Levy. And live for long afterward, that is." His smile was as disarming as it was humble. Barkeep, make it a whiskey for Mr. Levy, please."
Something that might have been a grin broadened Levy’s scarred cheeks. "Heard much about me, have you?"
Pliskin nodded. "A Jewish gunfighter makes me curious. So yes, I ask about you. Samson fashioned a weapon from the jawbone of an ass to defeat his enemies. You use a Colt’s revolver. I suppose it is a matter of ‘When in Rome.’"
Grabbing his shot glass of rye, Levy strutted over to the booth and sat down, spinning the chair around so the back of it protected his torso. "Ever use one yourself? Even the meekest of men can have an enemy or two. Sometimes they employ me."
Pliskin smiled. "Meek and mild, that’s me. But yes, I did use one. Once. Except it was really made of chocolate." He told Levy of the time he had backed down an anti-Semitic bully with a blend of bluff, bravado and faith – with a Colt molded out of Hanukkah candy.
Levy laughed, slapping his thigh. "Would have loved to have seen that, I surely would have, you making a loudmouth bag of wind back down." Then he frowned. "But I wouldn’t have had the nerve to do that without a real gun and real bullets. You were lucky that day."
"So I have been told," Pliskin said with a shrug. "But more importantly, I had faith and the courage of my convictions."
"I put my faith in this," Levy answered, resting a palm on his holstered Colt’s .45, its worn walnut grips testifying to lots of use.
"I have a friend, a young deputy, who once told me the same thing. But a gun can run out of bullets. I have a deep well of faith that never seems to run dry. We Jews know about the importance of wells."
Levy frowned. "Guns are part of my profession. Would a carpenter show up for a job without his hammer?"
"Surely you know the saying that when all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail."
Levy leaned forward. "Then I’d rather be the one with the hammer than a nail. Who wouldn’t?"
"A nail is not so bad, is it? Remember that old American adage, ‘For want of a nail?’ Nails are useful. They hold things together like walls and houses. Without them all our buildings would be like stacks of cards. And it takes more than just one nail to hold things together, just like a community needs many members to work. To be a Jew is to be part of a community. We are as much as way of life as a faith."
He sipped his sarsaparilla, letting the effervescence tickle his palate. "Besides, the way you use that ‘hammer’ destroys. A true carpenter builds things that people need to make their lives a little easier."
Levy relaxed, cocked his head to one side, squinting at the little man. "You sure you’re a businessman, and not a rabbi?"
"Me, a teacher?" laughed Pliskin. "No, just a man like you who is making a journey from birth to death as best as he knows how. I have a faith that guides me along the way and -- forgive me for talking to the deadly pistoleer Jim Levy like this -- I think it is better than that gun you wear. Take it away and you are helpless, lost. Take away everything I own, make me a modern Job, and still I have my faith. I am not lost."
Grat Farley gasped, one hand frozen in place over the rag that he was using to polish the bar, positive that shooting was bound to break out. He couldn’t help wonder if it would improve business.
Levy stared at the little man for a long minute. "So what are you saying?" The words came out in a hiss.
Pliskin smiled. "Only that you are the lion and I am the lamb. Your safety is your gun. Mine is with the herd."
"What about coyotes? They love the taste of lamb. What protects you from them?" A sneer twisted his scarred features.
"Not what. Who. Surely you have heard the words, ‘The Lord is my shepherd?’"
Levy shook his head and tossed back the rest of his rye, downing it in a gulp. He stood up. "Thanks for the sermon, rabbi. I’ve got other business to attend." As he left the saloon, he kept an eye on Pliskin by watching him in the mirror. But it seemed to Farley that he appeared distracted, as if he was thinking about something else.
Farley waited until he was sure that the gunman was gone before speaking. "You took a big risk with that man, talking to him that way," he told Pliskin.
"He could not argue with me and win. Besides," he added with a chuckle, "I had more words than he had bullets." Pliskin finished his soda, paid the bartender and left. Tucson was a nice place, but Panacea was his home.
Solomon Pliskin’s memory about the chance meeting with the famed gunman was jogged years later when he came upon deputy sheriff Verdell Hubbard while he was reading a faded copy of the Arizona Daily Star. He had come across the tattered newspaper while cleaning out the office he shared with Sheriff Wade Abernathy.
"Mr. Pliskin, didn’t you run into that jasper Jim Levy once?"
"Years ago, on a business trip. Why do you ask?"
"This was shoved in the back of a desk drawer. The sheriff must have found it interesting at the time." Hubbard handed him the scrap of yellowed and torn paper.
Pliskin read that on June 5, 1882, not too long after they had their chance meeting, Levy had gotten into an argument with John Murphy, a faro dealer at the Fashion Saloon in Tucson. Both men were unarmed at the time. Levy left to cool off; Murphy and two friends took the opportunity to arm themselves and to lay in wait for Levy. In the lobby of the Palace Hotel, where Levy was living at the time, they ambushed him, cutting him down without mercy. He was still unarmed and died protesting his lack of a weapon.
"Strange, ain’t it? He had quite a reputation as a shootist. But there he was without a gun and avoiding a fight," said Hubbard. "Who would have thought that would happen? A man like him who made a living with a Peacemaker."
Pliskin was silent for a long time, recalling his conversation with the scar-faced gunfighter so long ago. Tonight for him, he thought, I light a yartzeit, the candle for mourning.
"Maybe not so strange," he said at last. "Maybe he was trying to live without a gun, to be a peacemaker."
"Huh, you mean he talked to some preacher who said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers?’" said the deputy in a skeptical tone.
Pliskin shook his head. "No, not a preacher. Not even a rabbi."
Maybe, Pliskin thought, the lion had grown weary of living like a man-killer and yearned for the way of the lamb late in life. Perhaps too late. But is it ever too late to try for a better life?
"It is far too much to hope for," he told Hubbard, "but I would like to think that there were green pastures waiting for him as the Shepherd welcomed a member of the flock back into the fold."
(Jim Levy is an actual historical figure from the Old West. Any metaphysical musings about his motives are pure speculation by the author. More information about the Jewish gunfighter, as well as many other fascinating facts, can be found in the ground-breaking historical work, Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West, by Harriet and Fred Rochlin, and the magazine article "Jim Levy, Gunfighter," by R. Odell The exhibit, Jewish Life in the American West, currently is running at The Autry Museum of Western Heritage through late January 2003. An accompanying book, edited by Ava F. Kahn, is published by the University of Arizona Press.)