It wasn’t the kind of place we would normally go into. But we were out for an evening and neither one of was ready to call it a night. The truth of the matter was Trish and me weren’t getting along all that well. Dinner had been a little tense and neither one of us wanted to face thirty- five silent miles back to the ranch. On a side street downtown, the bar was packed with a week night crowd of college kids. I thought back to when I was that age and realized it was the kind of place you and I might have spent some time in.
There was a young guy, maybe thirty, playing an acoustic guitar. He was damned good. After we got a beer and sat down, the first thing he played was Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice it’s All Right.” After that, he went right into “Ring Of Fire.” His name was KC Flynn. He sang with feeling, some real soul. He played a beautiful blonde Ibanez and really knew what he was doing. I wondered about the songs he was playing and if they were totally lost on the kind of crowd that was in the place. He did “Working Man’s Blues” by the Hag and I started thinking about how much this town has changed, how there ain’t a cowboy bar left and you have to go to one of the yuppie joints to get a good steak.
The only money in KC’s tip jar was the dollar he had put in at the beginning of the night. Between songs, I went up and dropped a couple of singles in. Asked him if he knew any John Prine and he replied that he got asked that all the time and he figured he should learn a song or two of his. I told him maybe he should since Prine was the drinking man’s Dylan.
Maybe I was getting a little drunk, at least a bit melancholy. When he went into “Folsom Prison Blues,” I started thinking about you. How you sang that song with that silver belly Stetson pulled low over your eyes to keep the stage lights out of your face and how you leaned over into the microphone like some later -day Ernest Tubb.
I remembered when we first partnered up and spent most of the winter working on a feedlot operation over in Eastern Idaho. The nights we spent in that drafty bunkhouse drinking cheap whisky to try and keep warm and your guitar the only thing keeping us sane.
Then I thought back to the scab rock outfit where we spent a miserable year south of Jackpot working for that crazy bastard Ernie Harding and how he was going to run us off the place after we went on that three- day blow in Elko and he had to tend to the calving in what he claimed was the worst blizzard he’d seen in his sixty- four years in that country. Served the cheap sumbitch right. I think we spent more in town those three days then we made the whole time we worked for him. Seventy five bucks a month wages and a mouse ridden trailer that sat in the desert like a sun blasted rock twenty miles from the nearest tree.
There was that time over by Jordan Valley. The first night in the bunkhouse, that buckaroo who thought he was a tough guy braced you. Nobody else said a damned thing about your Brooklyn accent except for him. He wouldn’t let it go. Said he’d be darned if he was going to cowboy with some dude from New York City. Finally you knocked him on his can with a short right hand that would have made George Foreman proud. He was gone the next morning and later that night in town every hand on the ranch bought you a round. They all said no one had ever taken to him much and how glad they were to see him gone.
I was thinking about things that had occurred over thirty years ago. I was holding Trish’s hand remembering the night I met her in a honky -tonk in Redmond when you were playing there with your band on weekends. Hell, we’ve been married twenty five years now and the kids are both gone and living in Portland. The oldest one’s married and she’s due in the fall. That means I’m going to be a grandfather. I’ll bet you never figured I would be around long enough for that to happen.
Right about then, the kid started to play “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” And I swear to God, that’s just what I did. Sat there in that bar and felt hot tears running down my face.
We had spent the summer on a forest service grazing allotment up in the Ruby’s. Must have been ’78 or nine. It was late October when we brought that herd down to the home ranch, collected our wages and headed home in your old Dodge pickup. I remember you had three tapes: one by Waylon, Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits and Havana Daydreamin’ by Jimmy Buffet. They were about worn out so most of the time we listened to the wind and the hum of tires on the two lane hiway.
We headed for Elko and went straight to Mona’s. Then we had a Basque feast at the Star and got falling down drunk on Picon’s. The next day, we were an hour east of Reno when winter’s first big storm hit. By the time we got into town, we learned all the roads over the Sierras were closed.
At three the next morning, we were in a 22nd floor room at Harrah’s drinking Old Crow and water. You were wearing a new hat and a pair of Tony Llama’s you bought at that big western store downtown. You looked out at the snow falling and without a word got out that old Martin guitar. I cried when I heard that song then and I’m crying again now.
Bill Baber’s crime fiction has appeared at; Flash Fiction Offensive, Powder Burn Flash, Darkest Before the Dawn, Shotgun Honey & Near to the Knuckle. other places his writing has appeared include, Slow Trains, Literary Harvest and The High Desert Journal. A book of his poetry, Where the Wind Comes to Play was published by Berberis Press in 2011. A native of San Francisco, he lives with his wife and a spoiled dog in Tucson, Az.
I hadn’t talked to you much in the last five years or so. Last time we talked you were working as a wrangler on a guest ranch in Wyoming. I’m sure those tourists thought they were in the presence of the Marlboro Man, a real western cowboy until you opened your mouth and ruined it for them. I wonder what they thought when they heard that accent you never lost.
It was Charlie Waters from down by Paisley who called me with the news. Said you were on a rank three –year- old that got spooked by a rattler. I saw you ride some tough horses, never thought the one would be born that could do you in.
Charlie said they’re going to scatter your ashes on that ridge above the ranch. I remember how you used to saddle your roan mare on summer evenings and ride up there to sip bourbon and smoke while you watched the first stars appear. He said they were going to put a marker there with a guitar on it and the words “He was a helluva hand.” That’s what everybody always said.
KC was taking a break as we got up to leave. I kissed Trish on the cheek and told her I was glad she was there. I told her maybe we should take a trip to Reno. She kissed me back and said she thought that would be nice.
On the way out, I had the bartender send the kid a beer and a shot of Old Crow. As good as he was I figured he had better pay some dues if he was going to sing those blues.