Western Short Story
Trail Ends at the Palisade and the Call of the Loon
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Beau Ranklin hung his reins in front of the First Drink Free Saloon in a lower corner of Montana, and smiled as his eyes fell across smaller printing below the main sign, almost saying, with tongue in cheek, “As long as you stay for two or more.”

It brought him a laugh and a smile, and a good thirst working his throat after a long ride in open country, some of it across the face of a mountain he had no name for. But it had a tall, flat face that would find dozens of names for it in his time. He called it, simply, The Palisade, and that almost saying, “There’s no going past this spot. This is the outpost, the final stop. No sense trying to go anywhere past here.”

All that, of course, bringing him up short, as the old barkeeps in all the saloons behind him used to say when a fight started or a gun was drawn in anger or retort. In the face of this mountain, there was no mention of moving on, or past, but allowed withdrawal for all those who’d take it as all one wanted at the time.

Excuses, we know, come from every corner and corridor in our lives, the dank and dark, or the sprightly alive with false promise; you got your pick.

Beau thought he’d like to chew all this over with a long-time denizen of the area, someone in the know, a know-it-all, being under-stated. A whole lot of too-much-knowing is a heavy weight in the saddle with a rider picking his way along the way. His horse ought to have a say in the matter, such a man would often advise a meandering soul out and about.

He had heard it all! Needless to say, anymore, just turn around and go back the way you’ve come, get another drink, talk it over. Sometimes, the know-it-all’s are right on the money. Beau had been to that bank often enough in his days.

He tied up at the same rail, had the same laugh he had on his earlier visit, wondered what they’d say next time the signs were done over, change always coming down the line, the future dropping the past at a new hint, a new idea, a new song to be sung. Even cowboys had to listen to something besides humming to their horse all day long.

The barkeep in “the funny house” was called Tuner, at least he answered to that sound, the one that made him turn around to see its source. He was never surprised because he’d also seen it all as well as know it all. Takes one to know one, Beau was apt to say to himself, feeling like he’d run up against a brick wall, the Palisade, and had to come back to talk about it.

“No way around that out there, Tuner, or over it or under it, to get to the other side?” He was steady in his words, not letting on he knew so little, believed only so much of what he had heard about The Palisade, came back for another lesson about stupidity on the trail.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” said Tuner, a full no-nonsense smile on his face, being all-over friendly to a wanderer, his horse probably bringing him back on his own, the horse, that is!

“That’s a brick wall I run up against, like you said. A damned brick wall! I guess there ain’t no two-ways-around-it, nor one way either.”

Each enjoyed the small laugh, the big in-sight.

“But,” said Tuner, there is one way you can do it, but not with your horse. You have to go that way, which takes about a week, and you have to haul your goods with you. Gotta eat, you know. That takes all kinds of back and forth lugging stuff part ways part of the time with part of your stuff, and you’ll see bones in there with all the meat eaten off by critters, and all them kind laid down and quit and didn’t get to hear the call of the loon, that lonely, lovely call of the loon, that morning beauty calling out it’s lovely tune, drawing you on to the next day, where you get to hear the call of the loon each time. Keeps you going, that magical music one note at a time.”

He summed up that part of his pitch by saying again, “You can’t go with your horse, who won’t fit into a small niche of a cave and takes you a whole week to make the trip, and the call of the loon won’t be heard by a horse anyway, who only hears your humming along with his gait.”

Tuner seemed out of breath at that point, until I asked, “How come you know so much about it and the call of the loon, like you do.?”

He brightened up like a lit globe or lamp just then, before he hummed a bit, and smiled, and nodded to himself as much as to me, and said, “”Cause I came the other way coming here, all the way from the other side, hearing the loon every morning’s step of the way, with all that lugging in trips back and forth from one pit stop to the next pit stop and back and forth again, like I said, the loon as lovely a calling as you can imagine, that mournful music of the morning, as I’ve said, and why do you think all the folks here call me ‘Tuner’?”

“If you want it bad enough, to make that trip to the other side, you got to do it like I said, hearing the loon all the way, that sweet loveliness drawing you step by step along that route, bones marking the whole way, as I said, all eaten up, or ‘all et up’ as you might say in a hurry.”

I said to Tuner, “What happens to your horse?”

“Oh,” he replied, “if he’s a good one to ya, a real steed of the breed, he’ll hang around waiting for ya to come out of that little hole you went into and didn’t come back for a spell, just like a good horse would.”

“Was your horse there when you made the trip,” slowly adding, “with the call of the loon?”

“He sure was,” said Tuner in abrupt assertation. “Loving me all over again like the loon said he would, after his long wait and my long journey right through the mountain and back again.”

“You going to show me that slit cave, Tuner? I didn’t see no sign of it.”

You wasn’t looking and you wasn’t listening to the call of the loon. You go back to The Palisades and it’ll be staring you in the face, that slit of a cave, and your horse’ll be here at this end if you decide to come back, the loon notwithstanding.”

That portion was as much advice as it was fact, from a barkeep who’d made his trip through the mountain, through The Palisade, but coming this way.

That’s also how the trail ended and picked up again for Beau Ranklin, cowboy, out for a stroll, hearing the call of the loon as soon as he started off again, a two-way trip with the call of the loon coming all the way with him, like heaven was underground for the very first time.