Western Short Story
The Bridgetown Bard
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

When the last bridge was built on the Topeka Road, over the Squash River, and a town grew up around the construction site, the laborers called it Bridgetown. Campsites and quickly-built shacks rose abruptly on the nearby grass and in the sudden valley that lead down to the river. The workers, of course, after long days at hard labor, slept well, or, after a night of drinking, slept perhaps a bit sounder. Liquor was supplied by a couple of industrious men, in the beginning right from the back of their wagon. And many of the workers did not move on once the community had its growing legs, stretching the walk.

For the first few months there were no lady friends around and entertainment came from cards, rough music in the hands of many real amateurs, and games of man versus man in various frolics of mind and muscle, like checkers and tossing the caber, roping and wrestling, target shooting and poker.

Loneliness, thus, made its continuous way into camp, and into the resultant town now spreading its wings.

A few alert men later remembered the day the lone rider came along the road strumming his guitar, singing songs they had never heard, and riding a mule that moved slower than all-out misery.

“Where you from, Mister? What’s that song you’re singing? Where did that come from? You from Tennessee? Who wrote that song?” Many of the workers were from “back east a ways” and looked often for any connection to the past they had left for the dreams in the west.

“Well, gents,” said the guitar player and singer, still on his mule, “I never sing a song I didn’t write myself. My name’s Timothy Rains, I never ride the train, conductors never complain, what else can I explain?”

Reining back on his mount, he immediately broke into another song; “I’m coming down the ramp into the Bridgetown camp, my horse is itchin’ for some oats and my delicious melodious notes that I wrote last night. Those notes I wrote out there in the bare campfire light.”

Needless to say, he was cheered on and dared on, “Let’s see how fast you can write a song.” Those early greeters railed at him to perform. “Do it up. Do it up,” they sang and sang.

“Whoa,” the bard said. “Hold it. Whoa. A drink I had ain’t since school, none for me and my mule. He’s dry as bone, I’m without a tone.” He laughed and they laughed and the aura was set.

Timothy Rains had made his mark directly on entry into Bridgetown, a one-man band of entertainment and manipulation of the language and a bare knowledge of things musical … he’d be the first to say he couldn’t sing worth a damn, if he was asked, but nobody in Bridgetown, sorely in need of some kind of entertainment, would ever ask a volunteer to explain himself.

Out at the last bridge on the road he gazed, did our hero Rains, seeing the network of timbers as they criss-crossed and moved upwards in a measured latticework. The bridge was nearly across the river, its feet now firmly planted on both sides of the river but not completely joined yet, a broad and magnificent reach speaking loudly about planning, daring, commitment to a task, the hard work by all hands … hands who must be entertained, and thus literally “milked” of their few dollars, a poor trade off if they were ever to be asked … but nobody taking in the coin would ever ask for an explanation.

Rains, on first sight of the wagon dispensing liquor, squirreled the two owners into a quick conversation, swung a deal with both men, cornered a piece of land from a squatter for a few dollars, and put down the first plank on a saloon. It took only a few weeks to build, some of the lumber and supplies mysteriously coming available in hours of darkness, obviously from railroad supplies meant for the bridge and ongoing construction work.

But the first, original and only saloon ever allowed in Bridgetown, The Bridgeworkers Bar and Grill, began its two-year reign of existence on the far side of the bridge. Timothy Rains, chief proprietor, barkeep, waiter, song and dance man, sole entertainer for long months, ran a tight shop where coin was considered. It was this activity that prompted him to propose a bank to be built in town “to hold in account the good business success of Bridgetown.” Of course, it was to be built as an annex to his current property, The Bridgeworkers Bar and Grill.

Nothing but success at business and his strange talents set Rains aside as “different” in the community. All else with him was the same as the eager men locked into dreams of the golden nugget, the big find, the elusive female companionship that all the townsfolk clung to.

Life for Rains went sweeping along as the saloon did a grand business, the bank opened, and the bridge, nearing final completion, brought a flurry of activity into the area. The basic core of that flurry was the arrival of a blonde woman with oriental cheekbones, eyes blue as a grand sky, and a robust figure that caught the eyes of every man in Bridgetown, especially the eyes of the town’s leading citizen. When he first saw Geraldine Malden his heart leaped like it had never leaped. A song wanted to come to his mouth, but it never made its way out of his chest. It was the first real announcement that life for him, as he had known it, had ultimately changed.

“Mr. Rains,” she said as she walked up to him standing in front of the saloon, now four times its original size and a floor taller, “I am Geraldine Malden and I understand that you have rooms upstairs. I would like to rent one for some weeks, if that is possible, but it has to be a nice room and not any flea-littered tract of wasteland, like some of the places I have seen and never dared enter for a night.”

Her hand in his hand was the softest thing he had touched since a baby rabbit had quivered in his hands out on the prairie, and it put an attractive halting into his voice. “Of course, Ma’am,” he said, “the best room in the house is yours.”

“Why thank you, Mr. Rains, but I would have assumed that you had the best room in the house,” Her eyes flashed wickedly, but with a reigning innocence that stayed with him.

“It was my room indeed, Ma’am, but now it is yours. It shall be made up to suit you in a few hours. In the meantime, may I treat you to dinner in the saloon, in the restaurant part, of course?” We know, of a certainty, that all rhyme and reason had gone away in a hurry. He could not rhyme two words in an instant if he was bent over backwards … the words just did not come to him.

It was a romance of the ages, of the era, of the growing west, and Rains worked harder than ever to make business better than even he had dreamed of. The pair, loving lovebirds to all onlookers, made the romance one of gayety and color, and any free moment he would drive her in a carriage to show her the area around Bridgetown. When the first engine, without any cars attached to it, sort of a test run, passed over the bridge, a huge celebration took place. Rains threw open the bar for a solid two hours, “as long as the day’s supply lasts,” he said in his announcement. Then he added, “I will say now that the first passenger and freight train is due here two days from now, on Monday of the week, and we’ll have a real celebration, a daylong that Bridgetown will remember forever.” He smiled at Geraldine standing at the head of the stairs, as beautiful as he had ever seen her.

It was such moments as this one, seeing how she could burst a day wide open by just standing still in one place, that he wished he could make up a song for her, sing the words like he had never sung before, let her know he was hers completely.

Geraldine smiled at him as if she was reading his thoughts. She sent that slight, subtle flirtatious nod and eye move, almost a wink, down to him that cut through to his heart. If he could not write a song for her at that moment, he’d never be able to write a song. In effect, he accepted that agreement as though no words would make any difference in how he felt about her.

She managed a wave of one hand that was just as subtle and just as inviting when she turned back to her room in the front of the building and disappeared from sight. There was a sudden emptiness above him, a place that lost its immediate luster in a fraction of a second. He couldn’t believe the sudden loss, how the general surroundings went away with her, all the things that he thought he saw, thought he knew, and thought were real.

At that moment, the teller of the bank, and his accounting specialist, Joel Wardlin, approached him and said, “Boss, we got to put some of this money in the vault. This is one of the best days we’ve ever had, and Smithson at the general store said the same thing to me just now. He’s almost at a selling-out point and expects his new load of supplies to come in on the train tomorrow. Says he better put it in the vault too. He also said he saw a few new faces in town today and yesterday and is a bit nervous. I told him I’d speak to you, but all I saw have been a few new prospectors bound for the hills above us and those bare dreams we all have.”

“Go ahead, Joel,” Rains said, still locked onto the memory of Geraldine’s image as she turned away, the shine in her hair, the movement of her body, the little wave of her hand the way a sworn secret is carried out in full view of the world. “You do what you think you have to do, Joel. You’re a good man at the job. But I have something to tell you; some of the ladies have been calling you ‘the handsome dog who hides all the money in town.’ Some of them, for sure, are bound to have their eye on you, Joel. You best watch your tail before you get caught up in it all.”

“That isn’t always bad, is it, Boss?” His smile was as wide as the river, or the bridge that crossed it.

That night the blast went off. It was near 2 o’clock in the morning, Monday morning, the morning after a full celebration and another day of it coming along. Some people never heard a sound, but some, like Rains, scrambled from bed wondering where the loud sound had come from. A few men rushed into the street and a fusillade of shots greeted them from too many corners worth counting, or noting. They scrambled back to their protective surroundings … any wall was protection for the moment.

One man had cried out as a bullet hit him in his thigh, and Rains, never thinking about the bank, only about Geraldine up in her room, rushed around to get a gun, any gun, preferably a rifle that was lodged for emergencies under the bar.

It was not there. Nor was the barkeep’s pistol, supposedly lodged in the same spot. Some alert person, he couldn’t figure who, had beaten him to it. Forces, at least, were at work.

Panic hit him. He thought about the bank. Disbelieved his thought. Nobody in town would dare rob his bank. In a brief second he forgot about the bank and remembered Geraldine alone upstairs, exposed to gunfire and what else might come along.

In a mad-long dash he reached the stairs and started to climb them. More gunfire rang out, sounding as if it was coming from the back of the building instead of the front, where it had started. Still in a panic about Geraldine’s safety, he jammed his shoulder against the door of her room, not knocking as she had demanded right from the very beginning. The door burst open as he jammed his whole body at it.

The room was empty.

Geraldine was not there.

He glanced at her bureau. He saw nothing. The drawers were empty. The small closet was empty.

She was gone. Geraldine was gone. The love and light of his life was gone. More gunfire ensued when he looked out her window down onto the main street. It was as though they were shooting directly at him. He ducked low, looked around again, and rushed down the stairs.

One of the old faithful customers, a drunk if you’ll have it, was sitting at the bar, a full bottle at hand.

Rains yelled at him. “Have you seen Geraldine? She’s not upstairs. Have you seen her?”

The drunk, topsy-turvy if ever he was, said, “Last I saw of her, before the shooting, her and Joel were going in the door of the bank. He’s that good lookin’ one that works for you, you know the one I’m talkin’ about? The good lookin’ one all the ladies talk about?” He poured himself another full shot of whiskey, oblivious of his surroundings.

Rains fled the saloon, heading to the bank.

There was a silence suddenly in the air. The general store owner, Smithson, stood beside him, and said, “They hit the bank, Tim. Blew the door off the vault, swept everything out of there and fled down the street and across the bridge on a hand car, five of them, going like hell across the bridge. We’re getting a posse together right now. I got a horse coming for you.”

“I can’t go now. I have to find Geraldine. She’s not up in her room. I looked. There’s nothing there. I have to find her before she gets hurt.” He turned to go somewhere.

Smithson said, a halting in his voice, “She’s with them, Tim.” He had a sheepish look on his face.

“Is she hurt?” Rains said. “Is she being held hostage? I’ll give them anything, everything I’ve got.”

“She’s part of them, Tim. Her and Joel are the bosses, from what it looks like to me. The livery boy said he heard her giving orders, said he heard her say, ‘We have to get to the other side of the bridge as soon as we can. Once we get over there, the way the river’s rushing mad, we have a great chance to get away with everything.’”

“No!” yelled Rains. “Not Geraldine. Not my Geraldine.” The panic was full bore. “We have to get over there, find out the truth.”

“Here comes your horse, Tim. We’ll go look now, see what’s what. My money was in the bank too. Now it’s all gone. Every penny of it.”

They mounted their horses as the hastily-gathered posse reined up in front of them.

The whole troop of the posse, Rains in the rushing lead, were almost at the entrance to the bridge when the second explosion of the night went off. The blast filled the night with a thunderous flash of light, accompanied by a sound as if a monster bomb had exploded, and a huge chunk of the brand new Bridgetown Bridge went clattering tumbling into the rushing waters of the river.

Timothy Rains, entrepreneur, maker of rhymes, song writer and entertainer, once a saloon owner and a banker, felt the music in his throat, at his lips.

He waited for the words to tumble loose.