When the stranger spoke, a silence fell over the regulars at the end of the saloon's mahogany bar.
Moments earlier, we had been jawing about one of our favorite topics: the greatest Western ever made.
As usual, Big Harry had argued for "The Searchers." Little Eddie pounded the bar for "High Noon." Lefty Dan praised "Red River." And I spoke for "True Grit."
We've been having this pow-wow for years with no compromise. The closest we've come to consensus is that there are only eight or nine truly great Westerns, followed by a dozen that almost make it.
The handful of undeniable greats, in no particular order, include the above four, as well as "Shane," "Stagecoach," "The Magnificent Seven," "The Shootist," "The Gunfighter" and "The Wild Bunch."
Among the good also-rans are "Will Penny," "Ride the High Country," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Ulzanna's Raid" and "Valdez Is Coming."
When the stranger intruded, Big Harry was defending "The Searchers" against the charge of racism because it portrayed Indians so unfavorably.
"A great Western," Big Harry said, "don't have to be politically correct. Besides, 'Dances With Wolves' made every white guy ** look like a fascist crud, and I ain't beefing."
The stranger cleared his throat and said: "Excuse me, gentlemen, but what about 'Unforgiven'?"
After a long silence, Little Eddie said: "What about it, stranger?"
"I couldn't help but overhear this conversation," the stranger said, "and I haven't heard one of you mention 'Unforgiven.' I'm sure you are aware that 'Unforgiven' was the runaway winner in this year's Oscar judging. So how can you fail to include one of the few Westerns to win cinema's highest honors? Some of the films you mentioned weren't even nominated in their day."
Big Harry said: "Stranger, did you mention film? And cinema?"
"Yes," the stranger said. "Isn't that what you're discussing?"
Big Harry said: "We don't talk about films and the cinema. We talk about movies. You know, going to the show and seeing a movie?"
"Whatever dated terminology you wish to use," the stranger said, "it's unthinkable that you don't update your list to include a masterpiece of the Western genre."
"Excuse me, stranger" said Lefty Dan, "but we don't talk about no john-rahs, either. That is a Frenchie word. A Western is an American movie, not a Frenchie movie."
Sam the bartender came over and said: "Is everything hokay? I no want no trouble."
Big Harry said: "No trouble, Sam. Give the stranger here another white wine and leave the bottle."
"Thank you," said the stranger. "As I was saying, there hasn't been a truly outstanding Western made since Clint Eastwood's last effort, the haunting 'Pale Rider.' "
At those words, Old Doc, who had been silent, spit out his drink, stepped back from the bar, faced the stranger squarely, and flipped open his coat, letting his hand dangle menacingly near his beeper.
"Stranger," he said in a cold voice, "did you say, 'Pale Rider'?"
"I did," said the stranger, his fingers twitching near his notebook computer case.
"Then I tell you, stranger," said Old Doc, "that 'Pale Rider' was nothing but a low-down, cowardly rip-off of the plot of 'Shane,' scene by scene, character by character, dang near line by line. And around here, we hang plot thieves. Or we ought to."
"It was an homage," the stranger said firmly.
"Then car theft is homage," said Old Doc. "OK, stranger, tell me how many times in his career did the Duke say: 'That'll be the day'?"
The stranger's jaw muscles rippled. Tension mounted.
"Everybody take it easy," yelled Sam the bartender, brandishing a wet bar towel. "I just had the place fixed up and the toilet repaired."
The moment of tension broken, the dialogue resumed.
"Anyway," said the stranger, "if I put together a list of great Westerns, 'Unforgiven' would surely be at the top."
"You don't understand," said Big Harry. "It's the rule of 12."
"The what?" said the stranger.
"The Rule of 12," said Big Harry. "It means, can you take your 12-year-old kid to see it? If you can't let a 12-year-old watch it, it ain't a great Western. And every great Western we've mentioned is something a 12-year-old can see. Of course, the average 12-year-old would rather see stupid dinosaurs than brave cowboys, but that's another social problem."
"Right," said Little Eddie. "But that 'Unforgiven' thing? You know what the second scene in that movie is?"
Before the stranger could answer, Big Harry said:
"The second scene is a cowboy and a hooker doing . . . it. I mean, enthusiastically and vigorously doing . . . it. And when he has to stop doing . . . it, he jumps up and runs, leaving her in an unladylike position, it was like something out of old-time porn movies."
Old Doc reared up again and said: "And let us not forget the f-word and the s-word, and other breaches of taste, which are never heard in our all-time great Westerns."
Smiling smugly, the stranger said: "It seems to me that there have been hookers in some of the Westerns you prize so highly."
Big Harry nodded. "But you never saw them actually doing . . . it. I mean, the Duke? In all of his Westerns, the Duke never wore anything less than his long underwear."
The stranger drained his last white wine and said: "I think we have a generational gap here. I bid you gentlemen good day." And, notebook computer case in hand, he strode out the saloon's door.
Sniffing the air with a look of distaste, Little Eddie said: "Could have been a sheep farmer."
"Or worse," said Big Harry. "A film critic."