Western Short Story
The sun was already well up on that bright summer morning, as Mavis Hardy stood in the sunroom of her palatial home, surveying her vast acreage and finishing her second cup of coffee. Mavis was the middle-aged and portly wife of Quentin Hardy, patriarch of the sprawling Bar H Ranch.
Mavis was watching Quentin as he drove his custom built golf cart down their long cobblestone driveway to retrieve the mail from the box. The cart got quite a bit of use around the ranch, as neither Mavis nor Quentin were fans of strenuous exercise.
Quentin parked his golf cart at the end of the drive and walked over to their opulent fieldstone and wrought-iron mailbox. If they ever decided to stop using it for mail, they could easily install a port-a-potty and turn it into a highway rest stop.
Mavis was just about to go back to the kitchen when she saw Quentin start throwing mail up in the air. Completely bewildered, she rushed toward the door as he began tearing pages out of a magazine and jumping up and down on them in the middle of the highway.
Emerging from the house and gripped by growing panic, Mavis started down the driveway toward the ominous sounds of squalling tires. Her mind was racing; the will, the insurance policy, the key to the safety deposit box. Her pink housecoat was flapping as she trotted down the hill, all the while trying to get the lawyer on her cell phone.
Most of the nervous drivers that had stopped were afraid to get out of their cars. No one was sure why the rotund man in the bathrobe was doing half-naked calisthenics in the middle of the highway.
Little did any of them know, but Quentin’s melt-down was caused by a dastardly conceived set of circumstances that were put into motion long before he opened that mail box.
Just about two months earlier, Lester Jiggs was sitting in the living room of the dilapidated two-bedroom trailer house that served as headquarters for the less than thriving, Dead Cow Ranch. Lester was waiting on supper and reading the latest edition of the Buzzard Gap Gazette.
Bronco Bigrivers was in the kitchen frying steaks. Bronc had been Lester’s partner since they graduated from the eighth grade and became professional cowboys. Now the two of them, along with several nervous bankers, owned the Dead Cow Ranch, six deeded sections of buffalo grass that sat twenty miles south of I-90 and the little town of Buzzard Gap, South Dakota.
“Says here, they’re gonna have a fund-raiser out at the Bar H next Saturday night,” Lester said.
“Who is?” Bronco asked.
“The Buzzard Gap Historical Society.”
“What kind of fund-raiser?”
“Says here, Mavis Hardy has invited a wine con…a…sew…”
“Connoisseur,” Bronco said.
“That’s what I said. Says he works for a magazine out in California. There’s gonna to be a wine tasting with a dinner afterwards.”
“That bunch is getting too big for their britches,” Bronco said, “next thing you know they’ll be putting in a Starbuck’s”
“What’s black-tie mean?” Lester asked.
“You got to dress up fancy.”
“I got a black bolo.”
“That won’t work,” Bronco said, “besides, I wouldn’t go to that thing if they were paying me.”
“It might be kind o’ interesting,” Lester said, “I ain’t never been to a wine tasting. The tickets are twenty bucks each.”
“Twenty dollars to go watch some California…” Bronco paused as just the hint of a grin began to creep across his face.
“What’s on your mind?” Lester asked. He could smell something cooking and it wasn’t on the stove.
“It might be worth twenty bucks after all,” Bronco said, “start the outfit, we’re going to town.”
It was a quiet Tuesday night in Buzzard Gap. The Buffalo Bar was nearly deserted when the boys walked in and took a seat on the first two stools.
“What brings you boys to town?” Sam Trout asked as he sat two cold Black Hills Barleycorns in front of them. Sam was the owner of the Buffalo Bar as well as the bartender.
“We heard about the big shindig this weekend,” Bronco said.
“Yeah, that bunch of society snobs are having a wine tasting,” Sam said. “I offered to host it here, but they turned me down, said the place wasn’t elegant enough.”
“The paper said it’s out at the Bar H,” Lester said.
“It would almost be worth the twenty dollars to watch that show,” Bronco said.
“Twenty dollars,” Sam said, “that’s just for the tasting. Dinner is another fifty bucks.”
“You mean to tell me they want seventy dollars a head to spend a night watching Mavis and Quentin show off?” Lester asked.
“I guess that’s steep enough to keep us regular folks away,” Sam said, “They want to make a good impression on that magazine writer. All the guests are invited to bring their favorite wine and have it discussed by the expert. I’m sure it will be a contest to see who can bring the most expensive bottle.”
“How would you like to help us poke a little fun at that bunch?” Bronco asked.
“I might be up for that,” Sam said, “What do you have in mind?”
“I need the most expensive wine bottle you got.”
“That’s gonna cost you over a hundred bucks,” Sam said.
“I don’t want the wine, just the bottle.”
“I can’t sell the bottle without…wait a minute,” Sam said with a gleam in his eye, “I think I got just what you need.”
Leaving them at the bar, Sam went to the storeroom. The boys could hear him rummaging around for several minutes. When Sam returned, he was carrying an old dusty bottle.
“Do you remember when they were filming that Indian movie out here?” Sam asked wiping the dusty bottle with his bar towel.
“That was a long time ago,” Lester said.
“A bunch of them came in here one night right after they finished shooting,” Sam said, “They were all having a big time before they went back to the west coast. One of them brought this in to celebrate. They left the bottle on the table. It was nearly empty, but I put the cork back in it and saved it as a souvenir.”
Lester was examining the bottle and trying to read the label.
“Grande Cru Classe de…duh…Graves…what’s that mean?”
“Eye-talion…ain’t it?” Bronco said.
“I believe it is…”
“It’s a 1959 Domaine de Chevalier,” Sam said, “a Bordeaux from the south of France.”
“We was in a Bordeaux one time,” Lester said, “but it didn’t have nothing to do with wine…just a bunch o’ half-naked…”
“That wasn’t a Bordeaux,” Bronco said.
“One of the movie guys told me that bottle of wine cost twenty-five hundred dollars,” Sam said.
“Twenty five hundred…” Lester repeated.
“I sure can’t see it,” Sam said, “Tastes like old vinegar to me.”
“That’s perfect,” Bronco said, “What do we owe you?”
“I think I know what you’re up to,” Sam said, “Just let me know how it turns out, and we’ll call it even.”
“Give me a bottle of that reservation wine you keep under the bar,” Bronco said.
“Cheapest I got is Buffalo Chip Ripple,” Sam said, “2.99 a quart.”
“That’ll do,” Bronco said, “Pay the man,” he said to Lester.
“That Ripple won’t fool anybody,” Sam said, “It’s too light, the Bordeaux was dark red.”
“Not a problem,” Bronco said.
The boys had a few more BHBs before heading down the street to Injun Joe’s Discount Smoke Shop, Pizzeria, Two Bed Tanning Parlor, and Convenience Store. Joe was one of the merchants who had agreed to sell tickets for the big event.
“We need two tickets to the wine tasting this Saturday night,” Bronco said to Joe when they got inside.
“Look, Bronco,” Joe said, “I don’t have time for your jokes; I got a large blonde in the oven and a cute little pizza in tanning bed #2…no…wait…”
“I got it,” Bronco said, “This ain’t no joke; we’re going to that wine tasting.”
“Alright, that’ll be a hundred and forty dollars,” Joe said.
“We’re just going for the wine tasting,” Lester said, “We ain’t gone completely loco.”
“In that case,” Joe said, “You owe me forty bucks.”
“Pay the man,” Bronco said to Lester.
“How about you paying the man once in a while,” Lester mumbled as he fished out his wallet.
Injun Joe had known Bronco and Lester for a long time. He knew something was in the wind and he didn’t intend to miss it. He bought a ticket for himself as soon as the boys were gone.
The next few days went by quietly, except for the afternoon the boys made the trip to Red Cloud Formal Wear in Rapid City. Several mall cops had to get involved when Bronco found out $75.00 only covered the rent on the tux and he had to return it.
The day before the big event, Bronco mixed grape juice with the ripple, but the color wasn’t exactly right and it was too sweet. He added just a touch of vinegar, a little diet root beer, and three drops of Blu-Kote for body. Almost as an after thought, he poured in a double-dose of snake bite medicine to boost the alcohol content.
Finally satisfied with the mix, Bronco filled the old bottle with it. He had to lubricate the cork with a little bacon grease before he could press it back in. Lester searched around the trailer house until he found an old Christmas candle. After melting it down on the stove and a couple of quick dips to seal the cork, the bottle looked like new. While the wax was still soft, Bronco scuffed it up on his shirt sleeve and shifted a little dust from the barn-lot onto the bottle.
The Bar H was about ten miles north of the Interstate and the lights were bright as the boys pulled up in the drive. The old pickup seemed a little out of place as they pulled up to a line of fancy imports, and a few limousines, waiting for the valet parking.
When it was finally Bronco’s turn, a young man in a white coat walked up to the pickup before the boys could get out, “The servant’s entrance is around back,” he said, “and you’re late.”
“Park the truck, Kid,” Bronco said, flashing his tickets, “We’re paying customers.”
Bronco and Lester were decked out in black cowboy tuxedos and wearing brand-new big hats. The old cowpunchers really looked like somebody.
Overjoyed at the turn-out for her big party, Mavis Hardy was fluttering among her guests trying to meet and greet all of them. When her eyes met Bronco’s she nearly had to sit down.
“Bronco,” she said holding to the back of a chair, “I didn’t expect…that is…I didn’t know you were coming.”
Unknown to most, Mavis and Bronco had been a pretty hot item back in grammar school, but she decided to hitch her star to Quentin Hardy after Bronco went cowboy’n. It bothered Bronco for a few years, but he was long over it now.
There was a lot more of Mavis than there had been back in school. The years of easy living and ample groceries had not been kind to her. After seeing her again, Bronco figured he may have gotten the best end of the deal after all.
There was a lot more of Quentin Hardy as well. Mavis was thinking she may have been a little hasty. Quentin’s money was nice, but the rugged old cowboy in the big hat was looking pretty good to her right then.
There was a tastefully decorated table where everyone was to place their wine offering. Little white cards and envelopes with red ribbons were provided in order for each guest to secretly tag their bottle
After all the guests had arrived, the party got under way.
“Excuse me,” Mavis said, tapping the side of her glass with a pickle fork, “Please…everyone…I want to introduce our guest of honor, Jean Philippe Bardot, associate editor of Vinifera Magazine.”
After a moment of quiet applause, Jean Philippe began to address the guests. “Thank you so much for that warm welcome,” he said. “This is my first trip to South Dakota, and you have made me feel welcome. I especially want to thank Mavis and Quentin for their hospitality and generosity.”
“Alright everyone,” Mavis said after another round of applause, “gather around and we’ll get started. As you all know, the purpose of tonight’s festivities is to raise money for the Historical Society. In addition to learning the finer points of choosing a wine, we will bestow the title of Official Wine Connoisseur of Buzzard Gap on some deserving person.”
Mavis led Jean Philippe to the table and offered him a choice of bottles. The first one he picked was a Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, most of the wine on the table was California Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of the guests had been to the same liquor store in Rapid City. Due to the slow economy, the store was over-stocked with several cases of a particular pricey brand of wine.
The clerk had been a used car salesman before the auto industry went belly-up and he was quite adept at unloading “One of the few remaining bottles of the rare and expensive wine,” on his unsuspecting customers.
Jean Philippe pulled the cork and poured a small amount in his glass. Mavis carried the bottle around and poured just a touch in each of the guest’s glasses.
“First we see the wine,” Jean Philippe said, holding his glass up to the light. Notice the color…dark and red…life blood of the grape.” All the guests were holding their glasses and quietly commenting on the color. Bronco and Lester were going right along.
“Now we sniff,” Jean Philippe said. He stuck his nose right down into the glass and took in the aroma. “Notice the bouquet. You can smell the earth and the rain.” Everyone followed his lead.
Jean Philippe began to swirl the wine around and around in his glass. “When we swirl the contents of our glass,” he said, “we add oxygen by increasing the surface area of the wine. The oxygen opens up the esters and brings out a totally different aroma. Now sniff the wine.”
The quests mimicked his every move. There was a buzz of quiet conversation about the aroma as they sniffed again and again.
“And finally…we sip.” Jean Philippe took a small sip and held it in his mouth for several moments. “Let it spread across your tongue for a moment,” he said after swallowing, “Notice how it begins, the dark fruits, the oak, and just a hint of Havana cigar, finally a whiff of roast coffee. Every good wine should faintly remind you of a cigar box.”
“There’s a cigar in here?” Lester asked, peering into his glass.
“Quiet,” Bronco said.
“After you swallow,” Jean Philippe said, “Notice the finish and the length of time it lingers on your pallet…”
“Let’s move on,” Mavis said.
She couldn’t wait to get to her bottle. It was placed discretely toward the back so it would be the last and most memorable. Jean Philippe went through a bottle of Beaujolais, a Chardonnay, a cheap Merlot, and a screw-cap basket-weave bottle of Chianti that Injun Joe had provided.
Mavis was in a twitter when Jean Philippe finally got around to her offering. It was a bottle of La Chapelle de la Mission, Haut-Brion from a 1998 harvest. She had paid over three hundred dollars for it from an online dealer.
Jean Philippe was impressed as he pulled the cork and sniffed the neck of the bottle. “The nose is dominated by currant and raspberries,” he said, “This is most elegant, I must say.”
Mavis was beaming as she dolled out a few drops to each of her quests. They all complimented the mystery donor’s fine taste in wine as they held it up to the light, sniffed, swirled, and finally tasted it.
“I think I can honestly say this is the best I have experienced in a long time,” Jean Philippe said as he reached for the gold medallion that was displayed on the table. “I believe this belongs to…” He paused as he prepared to open the envelope.
Mavis was already going over her acceptance speech in her mind. She bowed her head in preparation of having the ribbon placed around her neck just before Injun Joe spoke up.
“There’s one more bottle over here,” he said.
“I’m sure it’s more of the same boring thing,” Mavis said, bobbing her head, “Please, Jean Philippe, continue.”
Injun Joe reached behind the elaborate floral centerpiece and picked up a bottle wrapped in a yellow dollar-mart sack. In spite of Mavis’ protests, he pulled it out and handed it to the guest of honor.
Jean Philippe’s face lit up as he wiped the dust from the old label.
“I…I don’t believe it,” he said, “This can’t be…who could possibly be so generous to bring this?”
Before Mavis could stop him, he tore open the envelope, “Who is the…the…Dead Cow Ranch,” he asked looking around the room.
“That would be us,” Lester said with a timid wave.
“Gentleman,” Jean Philippe said, “I feel privileged to be holding this bottle.” He held it up for everyone’s inspection. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is a 1959 Domaine de Chevalier, possibly the only one of its kind. It comes from a small vineyard in Entre Doux Mer, on the banks of the Garonne River.”
There were a few polite oohs and ahhs as they all looked at the bottle. No one in the room had the slightest idea what Jean Philippe was talking about. The wine could have been bottled last Thursday on the banks of Schmidt Crick in Cincinnati and none of them would have known any different. Mavis was standing with her arms crossed and rolling her eyes.
“I’m sure you gentlemen know what this is worth,” Jean Philippe said to Bronco and Lester, “Would you mind if I share that with our quests?”
“Please,” Bronco said, “Go right ahead.”
Jean Philippe held the bottle with reference as he cradled it in his hands, “this bottle would sell at auction for…at least…five thousand dollars…possibly more.”
There was a collective gasp as everyone looked at the old cowboys in the big hats. Bronco and Lester were smiling as they basked in the outpouring of unspoken admiration.
After the guests settled down, Jean Philippe turned to Bronco and Lester. “Are you sure you want to share this with us?” he asked.
“That’s why we brought it,” Lester said.
“Pop the cork, Jean Philippe,” Bronco said, “Its only money.”
Jean Philippe’s hands were trembling as he peeled away the wax and inserted the cork screw. Still under pressure from the root beer, the cork slid out with a pop. Everyone crowded around as he sampled the first few drops.
Bronco wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw a tear in Jean Philippe’s eye. Mavis poured all of them a small sample and returned the bottle to the table. Everyone was seeing, swirling, sniffing, and sipping.
“The nose is dominated by red berries,” Jean Philippe began, “The mouth is unctuous and supple. Notice how it begins discreetly then evolves into a plethora of aromas with just the slightest hint of…of…smoke…it reminds me of…the cured-meat shops in the Argonne.”
All of the guests were quietly praising the fabulous wine as Jean Philippe went on and on. The bottle was soon emptied as everyone wanted one more sip of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Mavis seemed to be missing as a reception line formed. After taking their turn shaking Jean Philippe’s hand and having their picture made, the other guests began filing in to dinner. When the crowd had thinned out a little, Jean Philippe took Bronco and Lester aside.
“I wanted to say thank you,” he said.
“For the wine,” Bronco said, “it really wasn’t…”
“I know,” Jean Philippe said with a big smile, “I meet a lot of pretentious people in my line of work, Quentin and Mavis Hardy have been among the worst.”
Jean Philippe started to chuckle as he put his arm around Bronco’s shoulder. “I don’t know what you put in that bottle,” he said, “but I really enjoyed letting the air out of Mavis.”
“It was our pleasure,” Bronco said.
“Aren’t you boys coming in for dinner?” Jean Philippe asked.
“Nah,” Lester said, “we know a place where fifty dollars will buy you the finest steak in South Dakota, a 12-pack of Black Hills Barleycorn, and forty-six bucks change.”
“Where?” Jean Philippe asked.
“Out at our place,” Bronco said.
“You got a car?”
“Not exactly a car,” Bronco said, “but it’ll get us there.”
“I’ll buy the Barleycorn,” Jean Philippe said. “Let’s go.”
Mavis was breathing heavy by the time she got down to the road. Several motorists had Quentin sitting in the gravel, trying to help him catch his breath.
“What…in the world…is wrong with you?” she asked between gasps.
Quentin couldn’t speak, he just pointed to the cover of the new issue of Vinifera Magazine lying in the road. Mavis picked up the crumpled paper and unfolded it. Her eyes rolled back in her head as she let out a shriek, seized the cover in her fist, and collapsed on the double yellow line.
“What the devil is on that piece of paper,” the ambulance driver asked his partner as they roared down the Interstate toward Rapid City.
“It’s the cover of a wine magazine,” his partner said after prying it out of the still-unconscious woman’s grip, “Some French guy handing a gold medal to a couple o’ old cowboys.”