Fiction Western Drama

It was last call and everyone had gone for the night except an old cowboy who sat in a booth beneath the red neon sign in the window. The melancholy refrain of Don Gibson singing Sweet Dreams poured from an old jukebox in the corner, and the overhead lighting cast an white glow over the room where the smoky aroma of charbroiled steaks lingered in the air. The bartender and the waitress with him knew the cowboy had been drinking and because the aging cowhand was a regular they knew he might overindulge and leave without settling his tab.

John Bradford glanced at the cowboy over the rim of his shot glass. “Last week, he got drunk and started a fight,” he said before gulping the contents of the tiny glass. “Had to take his keys so he wouldn’t drive.”

Emily stood at the bar, one boot hooked on the foot rail, and twirled a strand of blonde hair around her finger. “How’d he get home?” she asked after hearing the bartender’s story.

“He called someone at the ranch and a couple of hands came to pick him up.”

She turned her head and looked over her shoulder, glaring at the old wrangler with the kind of contempt reserved for enemies. “That doesn’t surprise me. I’ve seen him in here before.”

When she turned back around, John was looking at her in a way that normally would have made her uncomfortable, except she found herself enjoying the attention. He gazed into her crystal blue eyes, noticing her dark lashes, sculpted eyebrows, perfectly straight nose, and plump, full lips. Her pale white skin was smooth and flawless, except for what appeared to be the yellowed remains of a bruise on her right cheekbone. He suddenly became aware that he was staring at her and abruptly turned his attention back to the cowboy. “That’s ol’ Bill Rascoe,” he said. “They say he ran the bunkhouse for a big outfit up in Montana.”

Emily leaned forward and tossed her head to get the hair out of her face. She sipped her iced tea then crossed her arms, pushing up her ample bosom. “How’d he wind up here?”

John hesitated. For a moment, something stirred inside of him. She’s beautiful, he thought. He wanted to reach out and touch her, her arm, her face, something, instead he took a step backwards, away from the walnut counter top. I’m her boss for Christ’s sake. Finally he sucked in a deep breath, regained his composure, and said, “You’re sure asking a lot of questions tonight.”

“You can’t blame me for wanting to know what’s going on.”

John wiped the top of the bar with a damp cloth. “Just give him what he wants. And whatever you do, don’t provoke him.”

She stood upright and pert, then shrugged her shoulders and gave him a self-satisfied smirk. “If he doesn’t provoke me. I won’t provoke him.”

John turned toward her, with one hand on the bar. “I swear, you’re gonna make me gray before my time.”

“I suppose, we’ll just have to wait and see,” she said capriciously. “I am curious, though. Why’d he leave Montana?”

“Couldn’t say. Maybe he knew things.”

“Like what?”

“You know, bad things.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she said, moving around to his side of the bar. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“Just sayin’ you never know what goes on behind closed doors.”

They stood side by side and looked out the window—gazing into the parking lot. His arm brushed against hers. She could have taken a step sideways to gain some personal space, even an inch or two would have done the trick, but she didn’t.

“Oh, my God,” she said suddenly.

“What is it?”

The server’s eyes were wide open, she had one hand cupped over her mouth, and her head craned forward in disbelief. And there in front of the cowboy’s truck, a classic Dodge pickup, one of the W Series job-rated trucks with the V-shaped grill and speed lines on the fenders, a young woman and a deputy sheriff walked toward the motel next door. Light from the red neon sign glinted off his badge. She wore a tight-fitting black dress with black stilettos and hurried to keep up with him.

“How’s Mr. Rascoe doin’ over there?” asked John.

“He’s had a few beers.”

“I’m worried the deputy will pull him over,” he said. “Or worse, he’ll get in a wreck.”

“From the looks of things, I’d say the deputy has his hands full.”

Bill had also been looking out the window. There was a look of disapproval, verging on anger, inscribed on the cowboy’s furrowed brow. He finished his beer and peered into the empty bottle, motioning to Emily who still remained behind the bar.

“What now?” she asked, walking over to the table. “Black coffee?”

“I’ll have another beer, and a whiskey.”

“You’re gonna get drunk,” she said, collecting the empty longneck from his table.

The old cowhand looked at her with an annoyed stare and said, “You don’t say.”

Emily huffed and turned to walk away before she was tempted to say something even more unprofessional than she already had. “Tell him to leave, John” She waived with the bottle in her hand. “I’ve been here since five o’clock and I need to go home.”

John opened a beer and poured the whiskey, pretending not to hear Emily calling to him from across the room. But when she walked up to the bar, he turned and smiled, catching her eye. The waitress rolled her eyes, heaved a heavy sigh, and placed the beverages on her tray, carrying it out to where the cowboy sat in the booth by the window.

“Here you go,” she said, almost spilling the drinks as she set them on the table. “Knock yourself out.”

Bill downed the whiskey in a gulp, and then motioned with his finger. “I’ll have another.”

Emily snatched the empty glass from his hand and made for the bar, shaking her head. A few seconds later John grabbed an open bottle of whiskey from beneath the counter. “Another whiskey,” he said as he poured the beverage into a clean glass. The feisty server took the drink back to the cowhand, setting it on the table. Once again she returned to the bar where John stood drying glasses.

“He’ll be drunk now.”

“He gets drunk every Saturday night,” said John. “He stops in around eight o’clock and sits in the same place, away from the other guests. Orders a steak, baked potato, and a beer.”

“Tell me about the scuffle last week.”

“Well, some young stud shot off his mouth without thinking.”

“And, what happened?”

“Bill threw the first punch, landing it square in kid’s jaw, and the fight was on.”

“Who broke it up?”

“The deputy.”

“For God’s sake, how did he get involved?”

“Someone called the sheriff’s department.”


“Seems like every time there’s a fight, someone calls the sheriff,” he said. “I guess they were afraid.”

“What’s there to be afraid of? He must be seventy-five. I could beat him with my left hand.”

“Don’t be hostile,” he said sharply.

“I’m not being hostile! You always say that. Actually, I’m quite friendly.”

“Friendly like a rattlesnake.”

“You know what,” she said, throwing up her hands in frustration. “Excuse me, if I’m not all sunshine and rainbows. I’ve got a boyfriend at home waiting for me and he’s probably wondering where I am.”

“I’m sorry if your day hasn’t turned out the way you planned, but every trail has some puddles. You see Bill, over there?” Emily followed his gaze for an instant, but then returned her attention to the bartender, intent upon hearing whatever bit of sage advice he was about to impart. “He had a wife at one time, but she ran off years ago,” John said. “It seems she joined them flower children flockin’ to San Francisco back in ‘67.”

The waitress tilted hear head back and raised her left hand with her palm upward. “So, where’s the victim?”

“Well, Some folks say she was pregnant when she left.”

“So, what’s your point?”

“Well, Emily,” he said. “Makin’ it in life is kinda like bustin’ broncs. You’re gonna get thrown a lot. The simple secret is to keep gettin’ back on.”

The cowboy could hear them talking but could not make out what they were saying. He glanced out the window again, then over to the bar where John and the waitress were standing. “Another whiskey,” he said, pointing at the empty glass on the table. The waitress walked over to booth where the cowhand was sitting and turned to him. “Excuse me, buckaroo. It’s almost two in the morning and we’re closing now.”

Bill lifted his head and found her glaring at him. “Sign says you’re open twenty-four hours.”

“It’s just there for looks,” she said. “We close when the last customer leaves. So, tough luck partner—it’s time for you to go sleep it off.”

And with that, the cowboy slid out of the booth and stood, shaking his pant leg down over his boot. He picked up his battered Stetson and positioned the wide-brimmed hat on his head. And then, without an ounce of expression on his face, he placed a hundred-dollar bill on the table and turned to leave. The waitress followed him to the door, watching as he stepped off the wooden porch and ambled out to his truck.

“Why didn’t you let him stay for a few more minutes?” John asked as he closed the cash register. “It’s not quite two.”

“It might not mean much to you, but I need to get out of here and go home.

“What’s a few more minutes?”

“My boyfriend gets angry when I come home late,” she said. “And he’s expecting me back by now. Besides, the old drover can buy a bottle and drink at the bunkhouse with the other troublemakers.”

“You need to understand something, Emily.” He came out from behind the bar, stepping close enough so the toes of his boots met hers. “The biggest troublemaker you’ll ever have to deal with looks back at you in the mirror every morning.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “I just know Travis is going to be pissed.”

“Then go home. I’ll close up and see you tomorrow afternoon.”

“Alright then,” Emily said. Gathering her belongings, she slipped on her jacket and took one last glance at the dining room.

John walked over to the door and opened it for her. From where he stood in the doorway, he could see a storm coming. The first cracks of thunder sounded and lightning flickered among the clouds as a light rain began to fall. “Well, you best get home before the storm hits,” he said.

Emily paused, waiting for John to step aside so she could pass, and there was an uneasy moment as he shuffled backwards. “Goodnight,” she said as she walked past and stepped out onto the weathered porch. She slowed, then stopped and turned to face him. “By the way,” she said in that feisty tone of hers. “I love your thick brown hair, but I do believe your temples are turning gray.” To his surprise, she managed a smile before turning away and hurrying into the rain.

John closed the door and locked it. He then walked around the bar stools to his position behind the bar. After a moment, he spun around on his heels, gazing into a large mirror hanging above the shelves of half-empty liquor bottles. Almost instinctively, he cracked open a beer and poured a shot of tequila. Then raising the small glass, he said, “Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’ dentro.” John tossed back the shot, and while it burned its way down, he poured another. He was starting to feel the effects of the hour and glanced at the clock on the wall. With a deep sigh he dropped his head and closed his eyes, and he could feel himself drifting into a peaceful state—tension easing from his body as his mind began to calm. In a minute it would be two o’clock in the morning. The second hand ticked, forty-five seconds left. Thirty seconds. Twenty. Ten, nine… Time slowed and each second seemed like a minute. Three, two, one…

Bang! Bang! Bang!

The glass door shuddered and John flinched, startled by the sound. A shadowy figure, drenched by the sudden downpour, was standing at the window peering inside, waving to get his attention. John walked over to the door and pulled a set of keys from his pocket, slipping one into the key slot. He turned the key and the deadbolt made a click as he snicked it open. For a moment he just stood there, his breathing and the ticking of the clock on the wall the only sounds. Finally, he pressed on the crossbar and pushed the door open. There in the night stood a young woman, her arms folded, looking up at him, wet hair hanging over her shoulders.“Emily!” he said, surprised to see her. It wasn’t the unexpected arrival of the waitress that astonished him as much as it was her bedraggled appearance, especially her face. Her left eye was swollen and a bruise was blooming on her cheek. “What happened?” She turned away, her slender body, cold and shaking from the trauma.

At that moment a crackle of lightning lit up the parking lot, followed by a clap of thunder. John reached out and grabbed her gently by the arm, pulling her into the open doorway. The lights flickered when Emily entered the room and she glanced up at the ceiling. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

Noticing the tears welling up in her eyes, he gave her a concerned look and raised his hand to her chin, turning her face gently toward the light. “Travis?”

She nodded and began to cry. “We had a big fight and I left.”

“Drink?” John asked. She shivered and blinked. He took her by the hand and led her to the bar. “It’s all right,” he said, pausing next to one of the square tables with four chairs in the middle of the room. “You’re safe now.”

John walked around behind the bar, reaching for a bottle of whiskey and a small glass. He set the glass on the counter and began filling it. “It’s wrong for a man to hit a woman,” he said. “No matter what she says or does, it just ain’t right.” As soon as the drink was poured, he returned the bottle to the shelf and stepped from behind the bar, handing the glass to Emily. “This should help settle your nerves.”

John’s gaze met Emily’s and despite her anguish, she took a swallow of her drink and set in on the table. “I can’t go back to him.”

He took her by the hand again and slipped his other arm around her waist, pulling her close. “You can stay with me.”

“You mean, at your place?”

The look of uncertainty in her eyes gave him pause. Had he said something wrong? Had he misinterpreted her actions, as he’d suspected earlier?

“I have small house not far from here. We’ll have an early breakfast and I’ll drive you home to collect your things.”

Still trembling, Emily wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him as she started to cry again. “Well, I guess we could give a try.”

Before she could say another word, he leaned forward and touched his lips to hers, gently at first, then more intently. She met his kiss and returned it, parting her lips in a way that invited his tongue to gently explore the sweet softness of her mouth. He obliged, and she nibbled on his bottom lip before ending the kiss.

“I promise you, Travis won’t hurt you again,” he said, nuzzling her damp hair. “I swear, no one’s ever gonna hurt you like that again.”

Another crack of thunder sounded and lightning flashed, illuminating the dining room to nearly daylight. John awakened and opened his eyes. The roof of his mouth was dry and his tongue was furry. Wait, he thought. He drifted back into consciousness, slowly becoming aware of his surroundings. A relentless anguish swept over him, and it occurred to him that things were as they had always been. Tonight, he would go to bed and lie awake, unable to sleep, replaying the events of the day in his mind. And tomorrow it would start all over again. John drank the shot and finished his beer, tossing the empty bottle into a wastebasket. He disliked big cities and the suburbs, but Midpoint was a different thing entirely. It was quiet now, and the sound Don Gibson singing Oh Lonesome Me played softly on the jukebox as he went about the job of turning chairs upside down on the tables. When the task was complete, without so much as a word, John turned off the sign in the window and walked out, locking the door behind him.

September 17, 2023 12:33

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08:26 Sep 28, 2023

Enjoyed the buildup and the twist! Very nice.


Ron Robinson
00:39 Sep 29, 2023

Hi Karen -Thank you for your comment. I very much appreciate your positive remarks.


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Rabab Zaidi
09:49 Sep 24, 2023

Good stuff.


Ron Robinson
00:38 Sep 29, 2023

Hi Rabab - Thank you your comment. I really appreciate the positive feedback.


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