Happy Holidays! Here it is, the annual short story; hope you all enjoy it.
See you on the trail,
"Otis Taylor would've caught that pass."
The Cheyenne Nation eyed me from the other side of the bar and sipped his Armagnac, then glanced up at the tinsel and vintage ornaments hanging along the bar back of the Red Pony Bar and Grill and Continual Soiree. "I am thinking I queered the deal by putting up the Christmas decorations a day early."
The quiet racket droned on from the Sony Trinitron 27" mounted in the corner of the bar as the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos locked horns in a lop-sided battle for AFC West supremacy—Chefs 6, Donkeys 27. "You don't think it has something to do with the fact that you have a receiver corps that couldn't catch a cold?"
He watched the TV in a disinterested fashion as another receiver allowed the ball to pass through his gloved fingertips. "It must be cold in Kansas City."
I swiveled on my stool and adjusted the .45 on my right hip. Studying the frost etching the edges of the horizontal windows and the reverse reflection of the red neon Rainier Beer sign glowing in the darkness of the -26 degrees high plains evening, I was trying to remember it was still November. "Yep."
KC tried a reverse in the backfield, but either through confusion or nobody wanting the ball, that resulted in a four-yard loss. "No, definitely the Christmas decorations."
I reached down and scratched behind the ears of Dog, my only Thanksgiving companion. "Are those your mother's old ones?"
"Yes." Henry Standing Bear's eyes shifted back to me as he lip-pointed toward the festivities hanging above the mirror. "After she died, I never got around to putting up a tree so I decided to use them in the bar."
"They look nice—nostalgic."
He shrugged his massive shoulders, straining the too small Chiefs jersey with the words YOUR NAME HERE emblazoned across the back. "They make me a little sad, but I put them up anyway."
I sipped my beer and confirmed from his expression that he was going through his usual, seasonal melancholy. "Why sad?"
"My mother got depressed during the holidays." He reached over and felt the weight of my can, automatically sliding open the cooler and popping the top of another and placing it in line behind the first. "Thankstaking was the one she hated the most, though."
I nodded, refusing to snap at the bait of the social argument that we engaged in annually. "How's the turkey coming?"
He studied me again for a second and then pushed off the bar to stir the cranberry sauce and check the brussel sprouts in the oven. Walking over to the back door, he wiped the moisture from the window and looked at the turkey fryer beside the Bullet.
"Why did you park in the back?"
"To keep the drunks from running into my truck." I watched the corners of his mouth pull down and hoped it was in response to the lack of business and not the holiday depression. "How's the turkey doing?" The Bear could afford a newer, safer cooker but still felt that the five-gallon contraption made the juiciest, deep-fried turkey even though the thing was a festive fire hazard. "How do you know when it's done, other than blowing up?"
"There will be signs."
I sipped my beer and surrendered the empty. "Ahh…"
He crushed the can in a fist and tossed it into the trash. "Do you know what Columbus wrote about his first encounter with the Bahamian Arawak's that swam out to meet his boat?"
I sighed. "I'm not having this conversation..."
His voice took on a phony, authoritative tone like a scholastic filmstrip. "They brought us parrots, food, balls of cotton… Willfully trading everything they owned. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features, but they do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance."
"With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we wanted."
I nodded toward the game. "Your team is punting."
He ignored it and me, strolled to the end of the bar and looked out the front window of the converted Sinclair filling station at the darkness of early evening—his thoughts being darker. "They would make fine servants."
"Umm…" I cleared my throat, in hopes of cutting this conversation short before it became a full-blown tirade. "I like to think of the thanks part of Thanksgiving as giving thanks to the Indians who brought food to the starving pilgrims."
He stayed with his back to me, his voice echoing off the frigid glass. "And in repayment they took everything the Natives had and systematically destroyed them and their way of life?" His turned, and his strong features looked like the buffalo nickel. "Ten million natives lived in what is now the United States when the white man began arriving in numbers, and a hundred years later there were less than one million."
I shook my head and stared at him. "Henry, to be honest, I don't know why we do the things we do to each other, or ever have historically. I just know that for me the holidays are for family, friends, and that tiny bit of grace we can afford each other." I raised my beer. "Happy Thanksgiving."
He ignored me, but after a few minutes a set of headlights swung into the parking lot and he returned to the other side of the bar and raised his own brandy glass, but still not touching mine. "Thankstaking."
I glanced back at the window where the headlights remained bright, before finally switching off along with the engine. I reached down and ran my hand across Dog's broad head just so he'd know I wasn't talking about him. "Whoever this is, I hope they've got a more positive seasonal spirit than current company."
Silently we watched the football game, and it seemed to take an awfully long time for whomever it was to come in, but finally a bearded young man in stained, frayed Carhartt overalls and a coat to match entered the bar and stood at the door. He stared at Dog and me.
Looking at the younger man, I turned, interpreting his hesitance as being because of Dog. "Don't worry, he's friendly." Almost on cue, the beast began emitting one of his low frequency, idling-motorboat growls. I reached down and pulled his ear. "Knock it off."
He did but continued to watch the man as he moved to the far end of the bar and sat on one of the stools, loosening his coat and tipping his ball cap with a welding supply company logo on it back on his head where the blonde hair fell around his bearded face. "Can I get a Rainier?"
Henry nodded, fished another can from the cooler, and sat it in front of him. "Tab?"
The guy responded by pulling his keys and some coins from his pocket and scattering them onto the surface of the bar without a word. Henry scooped up the collection of change, returning a dime and a nickel, and then walked back to his vantage point in front of me for a few seconds and then on toward the back door again to check dinner.
I let Carhartt settle in and get comfortable before reporting on the game, just in case he was interested. "Broncos, by three touchdowns."
He looked at me questioningly.
I shrugged toward the TV. "Football." He unzipped and uncovered a bit more but didn't seem interested in the game. "Passing through?"
He nodded. "Back to Colorado."
He stared at me. "What?'
"The oil fields up in North Dakota."
"Yeah." He sipped his beer. "How did you know?"
"We get a lot of people, traveling through, going to or from jobs." I waited another moment and then asked. "You working?"
"Um, yeah…" His eyes darted around. "Was."
I nodded and watched as the Bear opened the back door and stepped outside, evidently to check on signs more closely.
The welder stared at the surface of the battered counter but then glanced up at me with his jaw clinched, once again shooting a look around the bar, almost as if he were casing the joint.
There was something going on with him, and all the alarms were going off in my head as I closed the distance between the bar and me, effectively blocking his view of the clip-holstered .45 attached to my far hip. "Home for the holidays?"
"Um, yeah." He took another gulp of beer and then stood. "Excuse me."
As he headed for the toilets past me I swiveled, still keeping my sidearm out of sight. Dog growled as he passed, but I nudged him with my boot as Carhartt disappeared.
A few moments passed and I thought about how the man had been behaving, then slipped the Colt from my holster and placed it in my lap with my hat over top. I sat there wondering if I was overreacting and thinking that maybe the Bear's attitudes had ruined my faith in my fellow man when Henry returned, rubbing the cold from his shoulders and looking pointedly at where the welder had been sitting.
He came back over and placed his hands on the shelf under the bar, where I knew from experience that an Ithaca, 10 gauge, double-barreled shotgun resided.
I uncovered my sidearm from under my hat just to show him I was having the same premonition. "Signs?"
He studied the bathroom door over my right shoulder. "The truck plates are from Nevada. It is possible that it is just that it is simply registered there, but he seems edgy."
I recovered my .45 and sighed. "You want me to go outside and run the plates?"
"There is also a woman in the truck and a very small child, both asleep."
I felt some of the coolness drain from my face and the stillness of my hands slackened. "Not the usual MO for a robber, is it?"
"You think we're getting scary in our old age—losing our faith in humanity?"
He glanced over my shoulder again. "I would be inclined to agree with you if he were not standing behind you holding a pistol on us right now."
Dog was growling again, but this time I didn't silence him; instead, I braced a boot against the bar and slowly swiveled to my left until I could see him standing there on the small platform about twenty feet away, his arm extended and a 9mm semi-automatic aimed at me.
"I need money."
It's strange, the things that go through your head when you've got a gun pointed at you. I suppose most people get a little nervous, but I've had so many pointed at me in my career that the thrill is gone—instead, the training kicks in and I started thinking in a tactical sense, taking into consideration the distance, exactly where your assailant is pointing his weapon, exactly what kind of weapon, how fast you can draw yours, and how quickly your two, deadly backups are going to react.
By all accounts, the young man was dead and he didn't even know it.
"I need money."
Dog continued to growl, and I smiled. "I think we got that."
"I don't normally do this kind of thing… I've got a wife and kid. I mean, this is not who I am. I lost my job and I need to get back to Elko…"
"I thought it was Colorado?"
"Shut up." He shook the gun at me in an attempt to stop my words. "I need money for gas, and food."
Maybe it was a sense, a sign that I'd given the Bear, but he placed a hand on my shoulder just as the fleeting thought of introducing my own weapon made a drive-by in my mind.
His voice was easy and conversational. "What kind of gun is that?"
The robber's eyes clicked from me, to Dog, and then back to Henry. "What?"
I could see that both the Cheyenne Nation's hands were spread across the bar like powerful spiders. "The semi-automatic you're holding—what kind is it?"
He actually kicked it sideways in an attempt to read the manufacture on the slide action. "I don't know, it's a… I don't know." He pointed it back at us. "Look, I need money."
"And I need a gun." I joined the welder in looking at the Bear as he turned and hit the NO SALE button on the old, brass register, and the cash drawer flying open like a jutting jaw. Henry reached in and pulled out a wad of twenties and fifties, quickly counting them out on the surface of the bar without taking his eyes off the man. "Eight hundred and seventy dollars, and I can throw in the eighty-five cents for the beer."
"I can't sell you my gun."
It took him a while to come up with a reason. "I'm kind of using it right now."
I could imagine the thin as a paper-cut smile that Henry Standing Bear was smiling behind me as he spoke. "I am proposing an alternative."
He reassessed his aim toward the Bear. "How 'bout I just keep my gun and take all your money?"
The voice that answered was resigned and just a little sad. "That is not what will happen, and all the other options will end badly for you." He nudged my shoulder and gestured toward the gunman and more specifically, the gun. "Does that seem like a fair offer?"
My turn to growl. "I think you're overpaying."
He leaned forward on the bar, his large arms straining the red jersey. "I do not have much time for shopping this season, so we will consider it as payment for shipping and handling."
The gunman paused and then gestured with the pistol. "Give me the money, first."
I glanced at the Bear, but he didn't look at me, his voice remaining steady. "All right."
I watched as he disappeared, crossing behind me and coming out from behind the bar near the back door. He continued toward the young man, stepped between the two of us, and then held the money out to him. The Bear knew full well that I'd taken advantage of his standing in front of me to draw my Colt and by now had it pointed straight at the man, one of the oldest tricks in the book, but instead of stepping aside, he remained there between us, protecting the gunman.
The welder reached for the cash, but Henry then drew it back, just a little. "There is one last thing, though."
The young man cocked his head and kept the 9mm on the Cheyenne Nation. "Yeah?"
"We are about to eat and there is too much food; I will purchase the gun from you on the condition that you bring your wife and child in here and join us for dinner before continuing your journey."
I watched the welder's eyes and finally saw them soften, and it was almost as if he'd forgotten the gun in his hand. There was a long pause as the ghostly and muted noise from the TV was the only sound. He sighed deeply, and his entire body relaxed a little. "We don't want to be a bother…"
Henry held the money out. "It is not a bother… It is a deal."
This time without hesitation, the gunman lowered the hammer on the semi-automatic and handed it to the Bear. Henry made him take the money, including the pocket change. "Go get your wife and child."
I quietly slipped the .45 back into my holster and watched as the young man left, tucking the wad of cash into his Carhartts as the door swung closed behind him. Henry stood there for a moment more and then walked back behind the bar to stir the cranberry sauce again and to check the brussel sprouts in the oven by the back door again, finally giving the turkey one last look.
"How do you know he'll come back?"
He stood there, looking out the back door. "Signs."
After a moment he crossed behind the bar and rested the pistol by the cash register. He stood there for a moment with his back to me again and then turned and placed