Side Trail Story
Epic and Primal Retreat for a Loner
Tom Sheehan


Side Trail Story

"Some rush back in a hurry," Thorne Ashbury said in soft appraisal of overhead clouds arriving for the 20th day in succession, a lately-found pain in his knee kicking into gear, his telegraphic thigh telling him the pain was going to hang around for a spell, his acceptance of things as they were, would be, might have been. These were lucky additions for some passages in his mind when tossed into normal arguments, or plucked for imagination to lock up for its own privilege.

He had his way with things, yet, to that point in this new day, despite any compassionate allusions, he had no idea how true his declaration was.

In another minute, the early Atlantic waves, in monotonous repetition, were also counted in their routine gain and recession at the near shoreline. "It's all play," he said, in a second evaluation of the order of Earth itself, its boundaries, its too familiar edges, all its clime, though the constancy was appraised, a nod given for eternal order.

For those who might wonder if Ashbury was a deep thinker, it is suffice to say he was a cowboy movie junkie; times over, day and night, at all possibilities, by TV, the staid neighborhood theater, old discs, new releases of old pieces of the old West. epic cattle herds on the move, gangs or troops of buffalo climbing onto horizons, horses on the loose or loaded with vigilant cowboys on the prod, on guard, heading toward markets never seen, shops lacking pictures, tables of consumption by unknown folks in kindlier dress, the elsewheres in the burgeoning land.

Lost is nothing like this.

The man, in addition, had ritual beliefs when watching a cowboy movie, for he watched little else; and from day one in this odyssey he never ate or drank during the movies, never left early or joined too late, knew some screen dialogues clean through to ultimate salvations; Jeremiah Johnson, in mimicable Robert Redford echoes, becoming early an out-and-out favorite from plains and mountain backdrops.

Echoes called on him repeatedly, moved him place to place, truly turned him awkward at times.

Some will say, "He's bound for a sour surprise somewhere along the line, the way he attends even the poorest representatives of the ilk, the Grade B-C-D-E actors with less abilities still existing in the drab gray of their initial exposures.

He could recite the names of all the stars (like Wayne and Cooper and Sellick and Eastwood and Jimmie Stewart and brilliant Marlon Brando in The Appaloosa, for example, the gallant heroes as monumental as statues), as well as the second stringers, (the usual cast of men who looked the part of every-day, worn-out trail hands, the Paul Fixes and Bruce Derns of the screen, the dubious sheriffs and deputies and bad guys by the pack like Ward Bond, Jack Elam, Ben Johnson, Royal Dano, Warren Oates, Richard Jaeckel and John Ireland to name a few, often early in their careers, tossed to the saddle for quick rides.) But, to a man, they breathed the air he could draw into his lungs, they viewed the vast western areas where he spent vacations, they rode the horses that likely began from Spanish leavings via Mexico, occasioned the stalwart women who waited their men in shacks, rugged cabins, ranch houses, in darker rooms at the head of rickety stairs beside the end of a bar, beside trailside fires, in thinly-protected wagons on similar journeys, thence embraces, a few kisses, a starry night left for expectation, the moon a golden dish for serving.

Ashbury knew them like brothers, sisters, lovers, the whole kit and caboodle of them. Each one was different but the same, gray in habit and of habit, rushing words, making grimaces seemingly provoking pronunciation's character, now and then working behind a saloon bar, or spurring on a beautiful horse, or from a prone position behind the thinnest of barricades taking aim at a Sioux rider heading for a spurious Hell, both bent for death, and neither one missing their selected target.

Cashiers and ticket takers and ushers recognized Ashbury at once, his never being overdressed, wearing or carrying thinnest of jackets or sweaters, comfort his first and only target for a few hours' duration, and never with the company of a female.

"The movie's the thing," he might have said.

One of those foretold odd days mentioned here eventually came his way, him caught up in slow traffic while heading to a theater across town, getting him antsy and making him late for the start of a movie, practically a sell-out. In the near darkness he found a seat on the aisle beside a woman whose aroma caught his attention before a word was heard from the rider on a tall horse managing a narrow mountain trail up there on the bright screen.

Only a few minutes into a hail of shots echoing vociferously throughout the theater, a hand touched his thigh. Light it was, at first touch, then with a sudden response of the rider's own pistol, her fingers, by the nails, gripped Ashbury firmly. For sure it was a nervous reaction, with her sitting suddenly forward in the seat, her grip tighter on his thigh, breath rushing from her whole body in quick expulsions it seemed, before she sat back, her hand transmitting a significant amount of nervous energy, the fore and aft of it, a large volume of human expression, life at its twisted best.

But she did not remove her hand from his thigh, this high contrast of confusion, energy, impulsive bursts, sexual excitements caught up in the fray of decisions.

What the hell, he thought in serious amusement and delight, and put an answering hand on her thigh, her skirt or dress riding up on that expanse of thigh gloried in a corner of his eye, near the near edges, the core of his swift complex of images of her, the lower heart of the beatable heart. With a disgusting sigh, she removed his hand and continued to watch the movie, not saying a word to him fully perplexed by the situation, "Turned on," him saying to himself in a new declaration, a mostly hopeful one.

Minutes later, the screen battle well into noisy retaliation, her hand touched him again, but sensitively light, assured, at sponsoring. He touched back, and she removed his hand with a quick push, the lead still filling the air with gunfire echoes, ricochets, an occasional rocky fragmentation blistering the air, and finally, at fight's end, cessation of battle, rose the weak cry of an injured shooter not yet seen on the screen.

The theater was silent in its acceptance of fate. The entire and vast room of the theater, climbing slowly to a walled horizon, supported a massed forgiveness for the back shooter, for the sniper gone to death. To a man, to a woman, breaths marked immediate control of sense and feelings, a slow intake of air saying agreement had been reached, semi-conclusion enacted, justice imparted.

Thorne Ashbury, in the moment of silence, spurred on his own slowed eruptions, turned to look at the woman who had not looked at him, his not-as-yet but closer partner in the game of life at accidental incidence.

Of course, he hoped for beauty to rush back at him, clobbering him, cutting loose all desires from all restraints, arms wide open, eyes aglow, cheeks flushed with expectation and promise so rolled together they came as one message, his mother he remembered saying, in one of their innumerable talks, "You'll never know what's coming or when," and his father, saying repeatedly in similar conversations with his teen-aged son, "You'll spot it immediately, know it the very instance she wants you to know."

In a moment of understanding what he never really knew, Ashbury realized he was at the crux of all arguments worthy of discussion, imparted, deciphered, condensed, elaborated, explained in detail or innocent innuendo that often take hold of parents, elders, and the like, when they should say what's really on their minds, for the good of all concerned, those being suade, edified, commoved, prevailed, coaxed.

Life is, indeed, too short to be uninformed, unadvised, left to ignorance of what's been done before our own pursuits. "This," he did say to himself, "is what makes us move, keeps us moving, maintains us."

Bang! Like that it came. Bang! Bongo! Bongo! Bang!

Her beauty stunned him, the perfection of lips softening his whole frame, eyebrows of expressive arch speaking out to him in elegance's way, cheeks aglow with brightness even in the dim light, unsure of the color of her eyes but deciding on the spot they must be blue, her sweeping hair blonde like a morning sun in this near darkness around them. She caught at the breath in his throat, a half-held, half-released gasp of compliments, hope, expectation aiding his reactions.

The message could not be much stronger, not during a western movie, not in a crowded theater, not from a movie buff like Thorne Ashbury.

The cowboys, whomever, whoever, no longer called for strict attention, his first ever departure from a cowboy movie, especially in the middle of a canyon firefight, odds always shifting, drama building in the midst of rocky formations, somewhere a woman waiting in a rustic doorway, eyes directed across a wide horizon, no one moving there but showing the lone sweep of a camera, catching where it can the essence of stillness, silence, drawing viewers, listeners unto its aura of wide plains, dry deserts, rocky gorges and deep mountain passes with trees in every shape and stance, and now and then a few of them, thick around the shanks, with Eifel tower reaches, the rare ones that have been around for a thousand years.

Even casual Easterners learn from the west.

Ashbury thought he could write the balance of the film, had seen many like it, but something mysterious continued to possess a portion of his mind, outcomes being so predictable, and such repeat actors getting lazy in their roles. That was the movie for him, and not the beauty beside him, semi-conscious as she might be and out of the equation.

The wonder of a possible trade-off loomed beside him, scents and aromas, rich with dare and deviltry, had broken down the normal barriers other people had raised in him from childhood, from parents, from friends who'd been bedeviled or delivered..

Some folks can't be figured out

The young man on the horse, being shot at by a bushwhacker, was the obvious hero, and pursuant to an inner dictate, found the wounded bushwhacker, hauled him from a pile of rocks and loaded him on the man's horse, rescue and salvage now his aim and not his personal safety.

"He's your brother," came the explanation, "the one you never knew, and back from the war. How here? How known? When you saw him in town, noted how attractive he was, I checked him out. He was a Reb sniper still working his war. It's a picture of him I imagined, unfinished, unframed. I was curious and followed up on him; he must have found about it and decided to even the odds. He had no idea who you were, but it came to me after some facts were revealed. Your brother, no doubt about it, in love with his own sister."

The beauty clawed him, the screen revelations now in her lap or, more so, in his lap.

One has to hand things to Hollywood once in a while.

Then there are spot decisions, such as the one aptly made by his new theater sidekick, him never propositioned in life, as she turned her beauty fully at him and said, "Let's play cowboy when we get out of here. Find out if you want to ride me or I ride you?"

He knew the silence around them, and the awe as she took him by the hand and headed up the aisle.



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