Western Short Story
As he felt older than the mountain itself, the one he had to climb each time he came down with a whirlwind express speed, his horse almost on the loose again, a drink at the saloon waiting for just him alone, as though he was its favorite customer.
“Hell,” he’d often say, “It ain’t too bad if you stay on your feet or your rump on the saddle, but I can’t start building a new place down here,” as he pointed to the flatlands all about him,
“less’n someone calls me in for a good long visit, like the Lady McGraw who ain’t too unlikely to look at for a good part of the evening and at the breakfast table, not at all.”
He was about to pass her house, set there right at the entrance to Spinoff City, a fallen chunk of the mountain eons ago coming to rest where it stayed forever yet to come, when, like every pass.
she hailed him again as he bore down on the Great Cat Saloon sitting like an emerald empire with its doors wide open, and Parkie Mulrooney, the barkeep, on all-night duty and part of the day.
“Hey, there, Mr. McConnauhgy, you old buckeroo,” Pat McGraw said from her own wide-open door, “you up for a bit of breakfast before you wet your whistle? I got the table all set for you, knowing you tell a story better’n half the folks in this here town can tell ‘em. Yes’ sir, that’s what they all say, you’re a story-telling man from the first word of the day. And I got all kinds of attractions hanging on for new folks like you a=setting at my table no matter how long you might stay, and my liquor as good as their liquor and a helluva lot cheaper price than theirs.”
This day, not really knowing why, he took a healthy long look at her and suddenly realized he had missed some of her attractions since the first time she had hailed him, him afeared of getting caught in a trap, the way some women can manage it, as it came to him from all quarters in the saloon, most customers not as old as him, but enough years gathered in a pile to be convincing.
Pat McGraw didn’t or hadn’t let the slight wrinkles on her face and arms (all that he could see of her) get ahead of her in the race to whatever and whenever, the skin presenting a darn good part of her, like it had never been abused by Time, not like it had wrapped him in its folds, scarred him, said, of its own, “Here’s an old man of the mountain for you, ladies, like he’s been run off the hill for another day again, and just for the sake of a drink at the saloon, which makes some men grovel, but not this old man, though he likes his tea in the morning and not too late in the long day.”
For this once, just this once, he stopped, just to please her, let her keep quiet from now on, let him pass by to his morning drink, the night too long already, and his throat all too dry and curly for fair breathing.
She welcomes him with no great surprise, but a solid and grateful, “Thank you for dropping in. I’m grateful at having you, and the table is set. I had a hunch we would meet for good this day. The air is full of welcomes, not goodbyes, and I trust you can feel them too.”
She sat him in elegance at her table, all set for two diners, a cup of hot coffee, its aroma filling the air, alert at its capture, smothered him at acceptance, the aroma working a small spell on him, sitting him more comfortable than any seat at The Great Cat Saloon.
“What kept you so long?” she said, as if the mystery was over and done with, all her measures in place. Her voice was soft, the kind he had forgotten for half a century, it seemed, and was chock full of acceptance, a second cup of coffee poured, her eyes as blue as the skies above the mountain, her lips forming each word she spoke with an added tenderness, her movements about the table, about him, full of silken sounds as smooth as spring could be, and he could not remember the first time or the last time he had heard them.
The Ages marked him, not the age; the sifting marked him with its music, its acceptance, the young performance, the cast dreams difficult to haul back.
When he moved backward from the table, Pat McGraw unwound herself and sat on his lap, her arms around his neck, saying, “I’m in no rush, but I am. I have dreamed this union for all the years you have passed by, waiting for it to happen. We’re old, but old friends of knowing, like landmarks, I can say, like the mountain itself just reaching for us, both of us, but unable to move back up there again, where we’ve both had a share of living, my part of the mountain not as high as your part, but where I watched you for years, dreamed of you for years, finally had to set myself here on the lowland, just waiting on Time.
The barkeep at The Great Cat Saloon, Parkie Mulrooney, looked up to see Tim McConnauhgy come walking into the saloon, a whole week since he had seen him last, thinking he was dead and rotting by himself some odd place on the mountain, the real cats having chewed him to bits, and an eagle taking some of him into flight for the first time ever. But this Tim McConnauhgy looked different from the old Tim McConnauhgy, a bounce in his walk, a smile on his face, a very distinctive ‘Hello’ in his voice.
“Where you been hiding, Tim? I ain’t seen you in a week of Sundays, and I know you ain’t been in church ‘cause there ain’t no church within a couple a hundred miles of here.”
“But I’ve been in heaven, Parkie, real heaven.”.
He swigged his drink like he always did, waved goodbye, and walked off again.
Here was one story Parkie hadn’t heard from Tim McConnauhgy, not as yet.