Western Short Story
The Blue Ox Passage
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Chico Chan wondered about the new customer at the bar; first, he wasn’t there, and then he was, as if from the shadows he had filtered himself, hardly noticeable until you scanned his shoulders the full measure, watched his hands move doing anything, nothing, action sitting still waiting to catch its breath, ethereal to say the least. Chan, as most barkeeps, was used to strangers, their new faces, the quickness in hands, the promise some men squeeze energy practically out of nothing, put it to use, become other than what they appear to be. The small mysteries in life, including strangers, still clutched at him with extreme interest. Indeed, it made life worth the effort to carry on.

This one fit the mold, and his twin guns holstered at his hips carried the signs of care; a shine, a gloss, to their leather holsters, the lean of them loose at his hips, or slightly below, all saying “comfort abides here.” Chan had quick visions of old actions performed in new ways, the way interest establishes itself.

Chan made other quick readings that he noted in the stranger’s hour of drinking: other customers did not try to get close to him, no free drinks, no “Howdy, partner, have we met afore? Did we meet in another saloon someplace in the past, cuz yore damned familiar to me?” Nothing of that sort took place, as though getting too close took more than damned small talk.

The stranger finally asked Chan, “You familiar with the Blue Ox?” He said it so others wouldn’t hear him, at which Chan simply said, as if warned not to be too loud, “Due north out of town, half a day. If you get followed, don’t blame me, but you raise more interest here than you might know.”

“Like who, if they ain’t your friends?”

“Half the whole room, I’d bet. And not plain curiosity if I’m any judge.”

“You’re protecting me?” said the stranger, half a smile utilized for looking around the room in a mood of pleasantry, a kind of just passing through. It worked for the moment

“Not really,” said Chan, “but if someone follows you, don’t blame me. You’re too interesting for most folks to swallow right away, like how the guns fit you and ready to draw, both of them at the same time, being new around here, and the Blue Ox like a place that just keeps people hidden, off the trail. Some folks go out there and you never see them again.” He added a second, “Never.”

The stranger said, in a half whisper, “Where any trail ends, another one is bound to start.” He seemed comfortable in his answer, adding, “All desert on both sides, for death-like miles atop miles, and Redwood being due north as the lone outlet.”

“So,” Chan said, kind of surprised, “you been there and still full of questions. You keep me surprised.”

“No,” said the stranger, “but I heard all about it. My name is Chuck Booth and you can tell anyone that comes looking for me where I went. I’ll be looking for them. They should be friendly, but one never knows out this way which way the shooting goes, up in front of you or out behind you.”

Chan asked, “Who you looking for? Like it was now his business, knowing so much this far.

“My kid brother leaving some bad guys on his trail for something he didn’t do.”

“Why didn’t he tell you? Get help from you?”

“He couldn’t find me in games when we were kids. No difference now. When I’m hid, I’m hid.”

There was a whole lot of belief in that statement, and then he said to Chan as open as he possibly could be, “I’d rather have them out front of me than behind me, but I don’t always get that choice.”

That response certainly verified a life on the run, get up and gone part of every day in the lives of some men.

“They hold grudges this whole time from whatever?” Chan had tilted his head, more a statement of disbelief than fact, saying what he didn’t have on his mind.

“Some men swallow hard, whether it’s the truth or a long stretch of it.”

Chan nodded, understanding what he heard, how it was said, what else the voice carried besides general tones of conversation. He reflected quickly on his own life,

his final arrival here, to at last converse with a special man, and not spend his life behind a dozen bars that drove him nearly crazy with dreariness, falling-down drunks he was servant to.

“It’s like this with the Blue Ox, from what I hear; when you leave there, you’re somebody else, name, looks, how you comb your hair, ride a horse, sit the saddle like another man, all hid in yourself when you go on., like you’re brand new, a growed baby on the spot so’s your own brother won’t know you, and you got a whole new life to choose from.”

“Who runs a place like that?” Chuck Booth asked. “Must be running hisself, but long lost now, been doing it so long.”

Chan replied, “Someone like you said, wanting to get away from one life and into a new one, change his ways, have a whole new life, maybe never seen again is the point of it all. Sounds like he had it all figured out for himself and did it, and figured it would be a good life for his new self, just sitting there watching one chased man come into his hands, and a new man leaving, still in the saddle but a new way of sitting up there on the leather, handling the reigns different than ever, throwing a whole new silhouette on a moonlit night, and his whole dream plain new and made over.”

“What’s done with the gents chasing him, the ones on this side?”

Chan said, “I figure that’s up to gents like you, taking care of things on this side, like come morning back down the trail, your horse hid, your back against a big rock, lost in the shade from the sun, and you got them bad guys right in your sites. Couldn’t be any safer than that, for you and your kid brother, and him anyway someone new coming out the other side. You might never recognize him. I’ve heard that happens when one brother doesn’t know his own brother unless there’s a slip or a mistake made one way of the other.”

Chan said, “I don’t need such a trail change. I ain’t never run from anybody and I ain’t running now. I’m kinda like the gent running the Blue Ox, put on my own ways and making it do.”

Chuck Booth asked, “Is that big rock you talked about back down the trail a mile or so?”

“See,” said Chan, “you already knowed it. I’ll see you when you get back.”

It all went as planned, Chuck Booth lost in the shade of a rock, the sun blazing behind him, the two gents trailing his brother were taken care of, and him not knowing how many more were on the same trail, after his brother who didn’t do anything in the first place.

Chan nodded when Chuck returned. “Nothing new at this end. If we don’t see anymore of them searchers or posse gang chasing the wrong men, he’s got it made, whoever he’ll be coming out the other side.” His face flooded with a smile

He poured two drinks on the bar and said, “We can celebrate that new man leaving the other side, not even knowing his new name, and him not even knowing there are two of us taking care of this end. Here’s to a new friendship.”

The word came back once in the following years that the Blue Ox had folded. Nothing else was ever said, just like an idea folds up and is gone and never a trace of it found again.